A quarter of a century is a long time and to have a dance company survive and to thrive in these times is no small feat. Deeply Rooted Dance Theater (DRDT) has done just that and is celebrating with a virtual and in-person fundraiser and performance this Saturday at the Athaneaum Theatre. “Deeply 25: Beyond Dance…The Celebration Begins” highlights the journey and the mission of the company and its founders Kevin Iega Jeff and Gary Abbott and includes all the voices and creativity it has picked up from collaborating artists along the way.
Iega (now known with only one name, like Cher), spent his training and early dance career in New York training with Bernice Johnson, attending the High School for the Performing Arts (yes, the Fame school) and the Juilliard School, and performing on Broadway. He started his own company, JUBILIATION!, while still studying and dancing. The company was a success with robust touring and performance schedules and was slated to be on the cover of Dance Magazine. Then the AIDS epidemic hit and it hit them hard.
After losing board members, dancers and their booking agent, the company folded and Iega took a job in Chicago as the new artistic director at Joseph Holmes Dance Theatre. It was a one-year contract. This job ended, but he wasn’t done. Iega knew he wanted to stay in Chicago and continue the work, so he founded DRDT with a friend, Abbott, in 1995. “I loved the city and was committed to it,” said Iega. “I knew it would take time to build the community that would understand and have the capacity to really support the work that we wanted to do and the institution we wanted to grow. I find that, 25 years later, we’ve laid the foundation in generations that can now step up and lead. I didn’t think it would take 25 years.”
DRDT has a two-tiered mission: one is artistic excellence in dance, specifically dance that tells stories from a Black/African American perspective. “At the same time, it’s about the process of growing individuals and growing community,” Iega said. One way the former tier is coming to fruition is in Nicole Clarke-Springer, DRDT’s new artistic director. She joined DRDT as an apprentice and has grown through the ranks as a company member, education director and choreographer. Now, she is in the top position learning daily from the co-founders. The artistic team—Iega, Abbott and rehearsal director Joshua Ishmon—are there to support her in any way she needs. “I’m here to help her connect the dots,” said Iega. “My greatest job is to facilitate the genius that is in the room, to really ask questions and to foster conversations that help the room use each other as effectively as possible.” Clarke-Springer is humbled by the experience. “I was able to learn quietly,” she said. “I was able to be in spaces and meetings that allowed me to see the inner workings and how Iega and Gary have been able to push and make this company happen. It’s been a joy. This was my next step. I feel like I’m meant to do this.”
After her early training with Claudette Soltis and the Indianapolis Ballet Theatre, Clarke-Springer earned her B.S. in Arts Administration at Butler University. Next on her agenda? Like many young dancers, her plan was to move to New York City and dance for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. A friend kept pressing her to take class at DRDT and she finally gave in and ended up in an audition for their summer program, with Iega at the front of the room. “It was a free class, so why not?” she said. “They worked us to the point where the mirrors were fogged, I was covered in sweat, just drenched. And I heard this voice—it was so clear—and it said, ‘You are never leaving his side.’ This is where I have to be. It was like kindred spirits.”
Her place at DRDT was truly meant to be as evidenced by the seamless transition of Iega to creative director and part of the Special Projects Division with Clarke-Springer leading the artistic vision. Her vision is on full display in the curation of the anniversary performance this weekend. Saturday’s program will include interviews and videos from the artistic team and company member Dominique Atwood along with video highlights from the company’s repertory. But the performance isn’t a retrospective of the 25-year history, instead it takes a cinematic, emotional approach with a narrative to accompany the company’s mission.
The evening includes two sections from Iega’s 2010 work “I Am Deeply Rooted,” starting with “My Country Tis of Thee” to the voice of Mahalia Jackson, a poignant opening in these times of renewed civil unrest and political uncertainty. Following are Clarke-Springer’s “Rain,” an excerpt from a larger piece that was slated to premiere this past March by DRDT’s Emerging Artist Ensemble (another COVID casualty), “When Men” by Ishmon, Iega’s piece “Surrender,” and finally “Heaven,” a work from DRDT’s co-founders reimagined by Sam Trump.
“We start with this amazing voice singing an American anthem and see the flag crumble. This is America and right now I hate to think we are going backward,” said Clarke-Springer. “We start big and then go in to tell these little stories like a movie. You have this broad view, then we’re focusing in on an apartment, then even closer, telling the stories of individuals and we end with hope. I wanted to do what we do best: inspire and bring hope,” Clarke-Springer said. “This is why we’re here. It’s our gift back to you. Come celebrate with us!”
Iega adds, “The whole evening is to give a snapshot of our humanity which is at the core of our mission. This is a great opportunity to thank not only those who have been on stage, but those behind the scenes and supporters. The vision for the company is to now, and for the next 25 years, grow an organization into an institution that we feel Chicago deserves. An institution that reflects its diversity.”
Deeply 25: Beyond Dance…The Celebration Begins takes place Oct. 17. Virtual general admission is $25; virtual premium admission is $150, both available at deeplyrooteddancetheater.org or by clicking the event page below. Limited in-person attendance with a maximum of 50 people is available at the Athaneaum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave.