Fearlessly Inspired, 2020: Links Hall

Flashback to February, pre-COVID: I’m sitting in the front row at Emma Draves and Project Bound’s split bill performance “The Nearest Place” at Links Hall. A pair of musicians play a lilting melody on violin and xylophone in the upper right corner of the stage as a woman in a long, silky dress flits about the space. Drave’s limbs fly every which way in her self-choreographed solo. The monochromatic nature of the space—white walls balanced by the light gray dress— and a hauntingly slow symphony, give the piece a somber tone. I find it easy to get lost in Draves’ repetitive choreography. Cut to an uptempo recording of a pop song playing from an overhead speaker as a duo of insatiably fierce dancers command the floor. Kathryn Hetrick and Ashley Deran’s lighthearted, exacting performance quality is wildly different from the piece prior. Project Bound Dance closed the evening on a much appreciated high note. Looking back, I smile at how complementary the two distinct styles felt in that intimate space, despite what felt like radical differences at the time. 

While there are countless performances that showcase the brilliance with which  Links Hall brings artists together, this is just one example that speaks to the pleasing aesthetics, adaptable predisposition and compassionate humans you’ll find at Links Hall. The three Links shows I had the pleasure of reviewing in 2020 speak to the diversity of artists who choose the nonprofit artspace as venue to premiere their creations. Yet, in this year specifically, Links aimed to do everything they could to support any and all artists who opted to work with them—which, to me, speaks volumes about who they are as an organization.

Like “The Farwell Fables,” carefully curated by the ever-playful Cabinet of Curiosity, for example, an evening that surprised me—in a good way. When I think back to the company’s March opening—which, as fate would have it, was also closing night—memories of the evening are as real now as it was then. Links Hall was practically unrecognizable, filled with grass, puppets and giant “god-like” paper cutouts. The whimsy and color from that night have stuck with me over the last nine months, and in hindsight, the satirical storyline centered around the end of the world seems oddly prophetic. Social distancing guidelines, implemented by the city of Chicago rather abruptly, unfortunately forced the crafty company to end what would’ve been a two-week run of the show, or so they thought. Links adapted in support of Cabinet of Curiosity by giving them the theater space and sharing a live streamed performance of the show for all to see. 

Looking more recently, the 2020 Bridge Dance Festival captivated my attention in early November. Watching from my computer and tucked safely in my bed, the combination of dance films and live streamed dances moved me. With artists from both Japan and the United States involved in the festival, it was no small feat to have this go off without a hitch. But the virtual platform, supported by Links, proved nothing would stop the global performance from happening. 

Executive director Stephanie Pacheco has only been in the job a little more than a year, and likely didn’t factor a global pandemic into her calculations as one of her first orders of business. Pacheco created a strategy to continue to pay stage crews for cancelled performances through June, compensate mentors for their time with the venue’s resident artists and to reimburse those who paid a deposit for dates that aligned with their mandated closure. She often credits her tiny but mighty staff of four for welcoming her with open arms and moving initiatives forward in spite of extraordinary circumstances. 

Links Hall managed to uplift and rally around the artists who make our dance community the plucky lot that it is. They’ve hosted virtual retreats and workshops to help artists adapt and get the resources they need—the upcoming “It’s Okay Not to Know” Technology workshop, to name one. And in a year when creativity has been confined to bedrooms and basements, they’ve given choreographers new platforms with their recent exploit, the 96-Hour Project. Looking ahead, the 2020/2021 Co-Missions cohort will press on, announced in October with two extra artists and triple the budget from previous iterations. These six talented, young artists-in-residence— Cherrie Yu, Vanessa Valliere, Kierah King, Elliot Reza Emadian, Taimy Ramos Velazquez and Hannah Santistevan— are to choreograph six one-of-a-kind works for the Festival of New Works in May, 2021. 

It’s Links Hall’s wholeheartedly adaptive spirit and unfailing desire to support artists of all kinds that makes it the clear choice for one of our 2020 Fearlessly Inspired artists and organizations. The team is palpably passionate, whether you’re reading a program standing in the lobby or you’re sitting in your bedroom watching pre-show introductions on your computer. The whole team’s unfailing commitment to keeping the arts alive is paramount to who they are. That fierce dedication has allowed artists to keep working in an extraordinary year. For this critic, Links Hall’s unyielding support for Chicago artists is truly (fearlessly) inspiring.


Editor's note: This year, See Chicago Dance is highlighting three artists or organizations that epitomize our mission to fearlessly inspire an ever-growing, inclusive community to share in and spread the power of dance in Chicago. As 2020 draws to a close, these are shining examples of resilience, adaptability and artistry in an extraordinary year. Check out the whole series and, most of all, please continue to support and see Chicago dance. —LW