Artistic Director of Chicago Repertory Ballet Wade Schaaf on upcoming “Vibrant Variations” and cultivating gender diversity


From April 27-30, Chicago Repertory Ballet begins their 2023 season with “Vibrant Variations” at the Studebaker Theatre with four new world premieres. The performance features a “mixed-red” show, a stylistically diverse program of multiple shorter works–generally 3 or 4 pieces, each around 15-30 minutes in length, which would ordinarily contain work by different choreographers. What is different about this mixed rep show is that each work is choreographed and directed by the company’s founder and Artistic Director, Wade Schaaf!

See Chicago Dance spoke with Schaaf ahead of the performance to give audiences a chance to get to know Schaaf and CRB, and asked questions about their choreographic processes, what type of dancers are CRB material and about creating work with the goal of increasing gender diversity and equity in dance.

For inspiration, Schaaf looks outwards to his community for which direction to take. “I tend to gravitate more towards influences in queer art and queer expression that I just see out in the world and the community rather than dance,” said Schaaf. “But it is happening in dance, and even in ballet today. There are queer choreographers out there that are navigating through these exact same questions that I am working through. And we’re all doing it together.”

Another source of external influence is music, which, in past CRB shows, has ranged from grandiose classical music to moody instrumentals and avant-garde, electronic soundscapes. “It’s not that I look at the work from the outside and say, ‘Yeah, I’m going to do this thing.’ I think it’s more what I hear from the score, what I hear from the music. Often times the score tells me that ‘Oh, we’re doing a new moment,’ or ‘Oh, we’re transitioning into the next thing.’”

When you see a CRB show, you’re going to see a lot of personality, both in the dancing and in the dancers themselves. “I like dancers who are individuals,” said Schaaf. "Yes, I like dancers that have strong dance technique and that have a classical background—I use point shoes and all that stuff. But after all that, I really like dancers that are intuitive and can dance!” For Schaaf, it’s not just about making pictures and positions and pretty feet, but to use dancers who can really latch onto the ideas and concepts being put forth.

Chicago Repertory Ballet Artistic Director Wade Schaaf in rehearsal with dancers; photo by Andrew Weeks Photography

The program on for “Vibrant Vibrations” includes:

“Interconnect” A contemporary ballet work exploring our desire for connection in the face of isolation,  featuring a world premiere score by Matty Mattsson; “Song of Songs” scored to Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” which explores queer affection and the physicality of tenderness and care; “ 物の哀れ (The Impermanence of Things),” a contemporary dance work that explores the cyclical nature of life and the acceptance required to encounter the end of the cycle; “Move on Up!” A dance that brings contemporary ballet, meditation and disco together in an exciting finish.  (Descriptions from the CBR website)

"Overall, creating an evening of my own work has been full of both joys and challenges,” said Schaaf. “I knew that creating four world premiere works all in one process would challenge me, and that was something I was looking for… My hopes, fears, joys and desires are in these works, and nothing makes me happier than to share what's true for me with the world."

Known for lightning-fast transitions that bring swaths of dancers into view in seconds, Schaaf says that keeping the audience in suspense is a recurring theme in their work. “I think a lot about what an audience member is going to experience when they see the work that I am putting on the stage. I want to take them on a journey, on a ride. A lot of times I’m trying to mitigate the energy—especially the energy coming from the music. I intentionally want to push the audience into tension, and then release them from tension. I’m giving them this kind of push and pull. I think I use that way of moving people around the stage to elicit a response from the audience.”

One of the main missions of CRB is to challenge our concept of ballet, both in form and structure, creating works of dance that defy labels. “I don’t believe in the gender binary,” says Schaaf, “yet that is something {that has} been reinforced in the technique that I teach. So, I am now working on how to rip apart that technique that is based on the gender binary and make it into something new that is more in alignment with my beliefs.”

Although Schaaf would love to set work on male identifying dancers using pointe technique while wearing the eponymous shoes, the prejudice in society makes that an unnecessarily difficult endeavor. “I could see a lot of amazing male-identifying ballet dancers who would be really good at pointe,” says Schaaf, “but it’s hard for me to imagine an opportunity where they could even learn the technique. I can’t imagine that a teacher in a school would teach them that, even if they asked for it, because of stigma and tradition.

But Schaaf is optimistic, adding that “I think that this is changing. First of all, there are a lot of trans and non-binary folks that are younger that are in dance that have an interest in whatever way of dancing and style of dancing that interests them, and I think that there are more and more teachers out there that are training kids that aligns with what they need and want. I think that there is much more of anyone that is interested in wearing pointe shoes, they’re getting pointe shoes and they’re working. I think we’re seeing many more male-presenting dancers that dance on pointe as well as trans folks that are figuring out their place inside of a technique that is still on a binary and figuring out what to do with that.”

Still, the struggle against unreasonable stigma seems to be perennially uphill, but Schaaf is not above  freaking out the squares. “Yeah, I’ve seen people walk out of my performances—of course, you never know why that is happening (laughs). But I think that what we are going to see more of with CRB are moments on stage of all different types of expressions of partnerships, who dances what, equal costuming for all on stage… I intend to continue to push into that with the work that I’m doing because it’s a reflection of who I am and the kind of work I want to put on stage.”

When asked if they could imagine a future without prejudice, where people can just dance whatever dance style they want, wear whatever shoes they want, Schaaf’s response is quick and to the point: “If I have a say in the dance world, then that’s going to be the future.”


“Vibrant Vibrations” runs April 27-30 at the Studebaker Theatre, 410 S. Michigan Ave. All shows are at 7:30pm, with the exception the “children and families edition” matinee on April 29 at 2pm. Tickets are $55-75 ($25 for the children and families edition, shortened program) and are available at