Chicago dance has had a long love affair with process. Doubling down, are their audiences on board?

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited park in the country, with more than 520,000 acres and 800 miles of hiking trails. With endless possibilities to explore, most visitors don’t venture more than a mile inside the park. Many don’t get out of their cars.

I think about that statistic a lot. It is a phenomenon that both mystifies me and feels quite familiar. As a young choreographer, I struggled to understand why “The Nutcracker” was so popular when the average audience in my circle rarely surpassed 60 people. I wanted, so badly, for people to care about the thing I most loved, which was a brand of dance that, for me, transcended popularity.

That relationship to dance changed over time, with the course of my career drawing me from the stage to the seats. Yet dance remains a source of oxygen. It sustains me.

About two years ago, I had drinks with a friend I’ve known for more than a decade. We were chatting about our jobs. I think I mentioned something about how dance intersects with politics. “You know, I really don’t give a shit about dance,” she said.

I don’t remember what I said in response. Aghast, I probably mumbled something like, “Most people don’t.” But it felt personal, as if I’d had spinach stuck in my teeth for 10 years and she was just now telling me.

At the same time, I realized how inconsequential and niche dance is in the grand scheme. The average dance goer is perfectly content seeing “The Nutcracker” once a year, doesn’t think about dance on a deeper level and doesn’t want to. With endless possibilities to explore, most visitors don’t venture more than a mile inside the park.

In a recent session at Thespian Nation Live, a regional theatre conference, culture critic Jose Solis talked about the role of the critic as a bridge between the stage and the audience. That idea relies on maintaining a few of the traditional boundaries of criticism. Our responsibility is to the audience; the critic’s job, therefore, is to reflect what he saw, rather than what he wished he had seen. A review filled with questions and suggestions, Solis said, is dramaturgy, not criticism.

We are, then, tasked with evaluating whether or not the artists realized their intention. As my colleague Lynn Shapiro puts it, does the production “fulfill its promise?”

The merits of that practice are, of course, widely debated, and have been for decades, if not centuries. As concert dance wrestles with its present and historical entanglement with systemic racism, it is worth questioning if dance criticism—which has largely centered white critics and therefore white, Eurocentric dance practices—can adequately evolve.

Many dance circles say it can’t, seeing the collapse of arts journalism as signaling criticism's inevitable demise. Ergo, a wave of artist-led blogs, journals and podcasts looked to take agency over how their work is characterized, often accompanied by an invitation “behind the curtain,” “inside the process”—pick your metaphor.

This may not be a trend unique to Chicago, though this city’s love of process has long been shepherded by programs like Links Hall’s Co-Missions (formerly LinkUp) residency, the Chicago Dancemakers Forum Lab Artist Grant and festivals aplenty aimed at an egalitarian view of process v. product.

Add in a pandemic that still keeps many of us from attending any live performances, and there’s no end to the deep well of panel discussions, reflective writing, vlogs, podcasts and dramaturgical dissections.

Lately, Hedwig Dances is hosting a series of salons, opening the vault to discuss the creation of favorite past works. DanceChance, a long-running, monthly “open mic night” hosted by DanceWorks Chicago, has kept going digitally, returning once again on Feb. 26.

In a collaboration with Chicago Dancemakers Forum, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s company dancers are each matched with a Chicago choreographer in wide-ranging pairings to explore new, shared aesthetics. Craig Black is paired with bharatanatyam dancer Anjal Chande, for example. Darrell Jones and Jenn “Po’Chop” Freeman, who blend concert dance practices with vogue and burlesque, respectively, are matched with Abdiel Figueroa Reyes and Elliot Hammans. Though parts of each collaboration will be shared on social media, there’s no expectation to “make something.”

CDF also announced a new round of grants, specifically for multi-media projects harnessing film and other digital media. Among the 10 grantees is Alyssa Gregory with Chande (who will apparently be very busy this year!). Gregory plans to produce a podcast called “The Process,” interviewing Chicago dance artists about—you guessed it—their process. Excitingly, Ashwaty Chennat and Abhijeet Rane were also selected to revisit their promising project “Moods of Nayika,” a gorgeous, contemporary telling of the eight heroines present in the “Natya Shasktra” first shown as a work in progress, in 2018.

The Joffrey Ballet is planning its first live event in a year, with the premiere of company dancer Yoshihisa Arai’s “Bolero” livestreamed from Joffrey Tower. Originally intended for last year’s gala, the new work features ballerina Anais Bueno, Arai’s frequent partner, and is set to the classic Ravel score with costumes by fellow dancer Temur Suluashvili. Joffrey, too, has hopped on the process train, with sneak peeks at Arai’s rehearsals and an interview series on the company’s YouTube channel.

Will any or all of these things reach and touch people, who so desperately need healing? I hope so. How does a dance experience “fulfill its promise” when it doesn’t make any?

More than 10 years ago, our esteemed executive director, Julia Mayer, threw the doors to her “Coffee Dances” open, giving the public a monthly glimpse at her previously private Friday morning improvisations. She’s talked about how the dancer and audience, both, had a job to do. She put those jobs—dancing and watching—on equal footing, forging a reciprocal relationship between the chairs and Links Hall’s maple floors. The easiest article to pitch to any publication is a peek inside a dancer’s bag. “Coffee Dances” was a proverbial glimpse into Julia’s dance bag. It made me fall in love with her dancing, not because of some esoteric gobbledygook about choreographic process but because I felt invited. She made me give a shit about dance.


This story has been updated.