I distinctly remember Stephanie Martinez telling me she didn’t want to run a dance company. For more than a decade, Martinez has carved her niche in choreography, and in that time, built an impressive resume that includes commissions for some of the biggest names in the country (Ballet Hispanico, Charlotte Ballet, Sacramento Ballet, Eugene Ballet, Nashville Ballet, Ballet Memphis and Kansas City Ballet, for example). Her breakout work came in 2009 with a piece for Luna Negra Dance Theatre, but Chicago has, perhaps paradoxically, mostly eluded her—that is, until last summer, when Martinez became the first Chicago woman of color to choreograph for the Joffrey Ballet.
It was this year, believe it or not, that that same work for the Joffrey, “Bliss!” saw its main stage premiere as part of a mixed-rep series at the Auditorium Theatre alongside work by Justin Peck, Christopher Wheeldon and Itzik Galili. She may now count those men among her peers.
Those of us who’ve been around for a while remember Martinez’ brilliant performance career, which spanned 20 years. Most of those years were spent as one of River North Dance Chicago’s electrifying golden girls during what was undoubtedly a heyday for the jazz dance company. Martinez brings a lot of the River North ethos to her work as a choreographer in the way that she hears and interprets music. She is innately punchy and percussive, but layers these qualities over a delectably ooey-gooey marrow, par excellence.
It was my impression that Martinez loved the traveling choreographer life—and who wouldn’t! By working on commission, fresh inspiration comes from encountering a new group of dancers with each work, divorced from the administrative burden of running a company. Imagine my surprise when in July—what one now recognizes as early in the pandemic—I got a press release about Para.Mar Dance Theatre from founder and artistic director Stephanie Martinez.
To be fair, if there were ever a time for Martinez to plant her roots more firmly at home it would be now, when travel is nearly at a stand-still. Dance companies are bleeding money. Commissions, if they are happening, are being sought from local choreographers from within their ranks, or at least a car ride’s distance. Still, it is a bold move to start a dance company now, while performance and rehearsal venues are mostly closed and arts organizations worldwide are on the ropes.
In any case, that was how I found myself seated in a camp chair in an Avondale parking lot this October, for a socially distant but real, live, in-person dance concert akin to a tailgate party. It was only the second performance I’d seen since the March shut downs, and I don’t mind telling you, reader, I wept.
That’s not to say the company’s debut piece, “Kiss,” was sad, exactly. And it’s not simply the absence of live dance for months on end that brought me to tears. Consider the circumstances: Black pants and white tops against a blood red carpet—an only slightly more forgiving surface than the asphalt underneath it—popped vibrantly on that cold, cloudy day. A subtle hint at a narrative and a touch of the absurd came through in the dancers’ white Elizabethan ruffs around their necks and in their staccato treatment of classical music’s greatest hits: bits from Mozart’s “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” and Bach’s “Air on the G String,” to name a few.
And then there’s the dancers, a terrific, all-star cast with a few familiar locals and a couple loaners from companies like Ballet Hispanico and Amy Seiwart’s Imagery. Even on that rough, red industrial carpet, flawless execution and impactful artistry were on full display.
Martinez wasn’t done. Two months later, she premiered a beautiful new dance film, “Purple Skin,” as part of Imagery’s digital SKETCH festival. Part dance, part documentary, the collaboration (with local filmmaker Dean Berdusis) is a pas de deux for two Para.Mar dancers, Chicagoans Joseph A. Hernandez and Kelsey McFalls, and inspired by AIDS activist Lori Cannon.
In 2021, Para.Mar is planning to remount “Kiss” alongside two commissioned works. And from the get go, they work with a stated commitment to affordable access, diversity and community engagement.
To know Stephanie Martinez is to love her. It doesn’t surprise me that she is creating during this incredibly difficult this year. But she seems fired up like never before, exploring new mediums and platforms for her work and, honestly, making some of the best dance of her career. That kind of spunk is, in part, what made her such an endearing and magnetic performer onstage, and what, hopefully, will propel Para.Mar Dance Theatre forward in the new year.
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