It took two tries. Two trips down Lake Shore Drive during a re-paving project that is ultimately going to be great for the suspension of my car but sucks right now. And two tries circling and circling between McCormick Place and the 31st street beach looking for anything resembling a parking space. Tucked between those two landmarks, against an uber-busy lake shore during this third wave of summer last weekend, is a petite enclave of nature: a prairie restoration project called the Burnham Wildlife Corridor.
This knee-high grassland and its abutting concrete steps to the water are the site of “Conference of the Birds,” a performance by Nejla Yatkin and a company of five dancers sponsored by the mayor’s Night Out in the Parks program. A key tenet of the Night Out programming, which takes place all over the city and year-round, is that all events are free. “Conference of the Birds” is no exception, with some unassuming beach goers unintentionally opting in.
Beginning at the Caracol Gathering Space, we stood in a circle and introduced ourselves, selecting a rose petal from a bowl and participating in a brief guided meditation aimed at setting an intention. Form a “love affair with breath,” said Yatkin, “breathing in what the plants are breathing out, and breathing out what the plants are breathing in.” She talked of interdependence between us and nature, and for a minute, all the traffic and the parking snafus faded from memory. What remained ever present, however, was Chicago’s glorious skyline poking out of this tiny patch of forced nature – a man-made attempt to restore what might have been here before.
We opened our eyes to find Yatkin half-way down a woodchip path on her way toward the water. A long, garnet red fabric trailed behind her like a red carpet enticing us to follow, her arms extended as if in flight. The other dancers serve as docents of sorts, guiding our paths and, to a certain extent, our behaviors as the performance dips in and out of watching and doing.
Our first stop was just at the end of the path on the concrete steps at the waterfront. A long red skirt wrapped about her waist and a rose in her hair matched Yatkin's choice of music and dance, which reads like a blend between t’ai chi and tango. She gathers our rose petals, steps as far as she can go toward the water, and releases the petals into the breeze – perhaps the most gorgeous moment of the evening.
Dancers Shay Bares, Ricardo Garcia, Vernon Gooden, Irene Hsiao and Michelle Skiba leave our perch to join Yatkin in a sort of follow-the-leader dance traveling south down the shoreline, a combination of intentionally slow walking with a series of gestures – an elbow raised to the sky, a swipe of the face as if signing “beautiful,” a hand under the chin nodding it back and forth. These are mixed with some very technical passes of full-out partner dancing, until members of the audience are invited to join in a dance with one another. The goal? Fill the negative spaces between you and your partner, or partners, which for me, resulted in a gratifying improvisation with two strangers.
Next comes a solo by Hsiao, whose red wrap dress and waist-length hair swirl in the breeze as she sways and paddle turns – for me she invokes the Isadorables, as much of this feel-good dance does. The second of three interactive sections finds us jamming together at the La Ronda Parakata Gathering Space, a larger, circular patch of concrete on which Ricardo Garcia started us off with a combination of jazz dancing and parkour. Feeling much like I do about dancing to “Y-M-C-A” at a family wedding, relief came when all that was over and we turned into the grassy path of the Burnham Wildlife Corridor, late-summer mosquitos and all, to make our way toward the end of our circular journey.
Call it what you will – a dance, a nature walk, a vision quest, or all of the above –“Conference of the Birds” is everything a site-specific performance should be: imbued with and by its space, surprising, gratifying, beautiful.