Robyn Mineko Williams grew up in the suburbs. She comes from a mixed-race family – half Japanese and half “Caucasian mutt,” as she describes it. She’s a woman, an American and a Chicagoan. But traveling to Cuba to create a work on Malpaso Dance Company, she was, first and foremost, a choreographer.
Mineko Williams, who spent the bulk of her performance career with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, was selected to “trade places” with Malpaso’s Osnel Delgado as part of the MacArthur Foundation’s International Connections Fund fostering cultural exchange between dance companies. Lead commissioner Pamela Crutchfield and the Auditorium Theatre envisioned the collaboration as part of the Theatre’s “Made in Chicago” dance series, with a program including Mineko Williams’s work for Malpaso, a new work by Delgado on Hubbard Street’s dancers, and a joint effort combining the talents of both choreographers for a new piece devised for both companies.
Visa issues prevented the third part of the plan from coming to fruition, so the two premieres – Mineko Williams’s “Elemental” and Delgado’s “The Windless Hold” – are instead accompanied by Hubbard Street’s “Cloudline” and Malpaso’s “Ocaso,” a duet to be performed by Delgado and Hubbard Street dancer Alicia Delgadillo. Mineko Williams’s two weeks in Havana last May were when the bulk of “Elemental” was made; she returned with Hubbard Street artistic director Glenn Edgerton in February for finishing touches.
Chicago’s been gifted many dance riches through the International Connections program, yielding memorable collaborations between Chicago companies like Mandala Arts, Natya Dance Theater, the Seldoms, Same Planet Performance Project, Hedwig Dances and Red Clay Dance with companies from South Asia, Israel, Cuba and Africa. Each project takes a slightly different shape, but the primary goal of the program is about cultural exchange.
But Mineko Williams and Delgado consciously chose to approach their projects with a micro – rather than macro – lens.
“The only way of being universal, somehow, is to be very specific – to talk about something extremely particular that, in terms of culture, is about where you come from,” said Malpaso executive director Fernando Saez in a phone interview. “And I’m not just talking about the Cuban culture, which is either a myth or a lie – there are many different Cuban cultures interacting and evolving … This is what is necessary to bring to the process.”
Similarly, for Mineko Williams, who spoke with See Chicago Dance by phone in January, it was not about teaching Cuban dancers what “American dance” is, any more than it was about emulating Cuban culture through dance after spending two weeks there. Rather, each choreographer approached their work with the goal of being present and focusing on the people in the room – not on some grand statement generalizing any one culture.
“I always like to use the very present moment of walking in the studio, using where I am, where the dancers are, and where our chemistries are to really lead the work,” she said, adding that the theme of “Elemental” didn’t emerge until she started spending time in Havana working with the dancers.
“I think I was really inspired and led by being by myself in Havana – being in this really new place, and amongst these people, who are so present,” said Mineko Williams. “That’s what I felt from [the dancers]. They live passionately every day, with full commitment. That was one aspect that is huge in the piece.”
Another theme in “Elemental” surrounds the death of a loved one, and in fact, Mineko Williams and Delgado both lost one of their grandparents around the same time, a life event that informs each of their works.
“I didn’t set out to make a piece about death, and it’s not really about that, but it’s definitely one of the ingredients,” said Mineko Williams, who attended the family funeral shortly before leaving for Havana. “For whatever reason,” she said, “this particular funeral and the way people functioned at it – how people deal with losing a loved one, or don’t deal with it, or laugh, or cry – there were so many emotions. … I think this idea of dealing with the transition of death is a big part of this work.”
She also recorded sounds of Havana, including one of the daily thunderstorms she experienced while there, and the rattle of a small fan in her living quarters. These are worked into a score arranged by Robert F. Haynes, who she’s previously worked with on an intimate series called Undercover Episodes. Most recently, the ongoing series visited bars and taverns around the city, with the dancers performing in extremely close quarters with the audience.
The Auditorium Theatre is the opposite of a tiny bar in Bucktown, but no matter the venue, Mineko Williams’s work is about the details. Some of the finer points in “Elemental” were difficult to translate – Mineko Williams doesn’t speak Spanish, and many of the dancers don’t speak English. They had to establish a common vernacular through translation, physical demonstration and sound effects, but still, Mineko Williams often found communication difficult. “Sensation and imagery are such a huge part of the coaching process, and I think that was what was difficult for me.” She was looking less for dancers to do what she’s doing, but rather to feel what she feels. “That was the tricky part,” she said, “to communicate to them what I’m feeling.”
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and Malpaso Dance Company perform March 2 and 3 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Drive. Tickets are $29-$140, with Hot Deals available by clicking the event link below.
Disclosure: The author's wife is the stage manager for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago