Four choreographers in the South Loop Spark Plug prove that Chicago dance post-COVID is not a monolith.

  • South Loop Spark Plug.jpeg

    From Left to Right: Vershawn Sanders-Ward, Keyierra Collins, Keisha "KJ Light" Janae, Orlando "juice" De León, Darrell Jones, Bebe Miller.
    From Left to Right: Vershawn Sanders-Ward, Keyierra Collins, Keisha "KJ Light" Janae, Orlando "juice" De León, Darrell Jones, Bebe Miller.

The South Loop Spark Plug is an arts incubation series for dance commissioned by the Chicago Artists Performance Platform (CAPP) with support from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation and hosted by The Dance Centre of Columbia College Chicago. Four choreographers—Vershawn Sanders-Ward, Orlando “juice” De León Jr., Keyierra Collins, and Keisha Janae—took part in a six-month residency with Bebe Miller, acclaimed choreographer, dancer and artistic director of the Solo/Duo Dancing Project, and Dance Center faculty member Darrell Jones.

Ellen Chenoweth, Director of the Dance Presenting Series at Columbia, in an introduction to the program, explains that the intention of the South Loop Spark Plug is to help reignite a post-COVID creative landscape. “We have been rebuilding our commissioning practice, and it feels particularly important to help in the development of new dance creations however we can at the moment,” she said.

“Rest.Rise.Move.Nourish.Heal(Harvest),” by Vershawn Sanders-Ward and Red Clay Dance Company, tells the tale of two goddesses who lead a small band of women into an uncertain but optimistic future. At the strike of a cowbell, the goddesses, dressed in marigold and rose-red robes and adorned with strings of cowrie shells, approach five lifeless women’s bodies. Activating each of them with a touch, the goddesses cause the bodies’ limbs to twitch, shake and melt as audible waves of rain soothe their convulsions. The women, dressed in earth-toned peasant ware, are pressed to the floor as if by the force of intense gravity, and yet they manage to drag their bodies with their arms, surrounding a goddess sitting on a throne of flowers and ivy singing a slow, bluesy melody. The fate of these women seems to be up in the air, but there is an optimistic twist as a funky bass line rolls in and settles into a groove that snaps them out of their torpor. Small groups and soloists do a blend of dance styles born of the African diaspora, congealing into abstract formations at just the right moment, a hip popping up at the drop of a new bass riff.

In a program note the artist states, “This work is dedicated to our ancestral grandmothers, who braided seeds in their hair before being forced to board transatlantic slave ships, believing against the odds in a future of sovereignty on land.” That sense of optimism prevails on stage, as the women and goddesses move forward in a saltatorial procession towards a blinding white light, unabashed and unafraid. Sanders-Ward and Red Clay are creating work that envisions a brighter future, a future that looks bright indeed.

The next piece, “Stop Playing W. Me,” begins mid-transition with the choreographer,  Orlando “juice” De León, wheeling in a small amplifier and speaker, ignoring the powerful in-house speaker system, and moves from corner to corner asking, “Can you hear me here?” De León comments on the lack of frivolity in his “rinky-dink setup” consisting of only four color-changing light bulbs posted on stands equipped with light spreading diffusers at each corner of the stage. “This isn’t a fancy dance [his emphasis] about a king or a lost love but an expression of the bodies you see before you,” says De León, throwing some shade on the concert dance format. He is then joined on stage by a cadre of friends for an old-fashioned cypher, each member providing samples of their signature skills.

De León (juice) kicks things off with an illusion of twisting limbs, his left hand tracing his right arm until they come together, split into an “X” that transforms and swirls around his head, transitions from one shape to the next in a seamless blur.
Tristen “Penny” Green pays close attention to the music, matching each change in rhythmic timbre with a corresponding hop into a new dance trend.
Karina “Killerina” Rivera is a bruiser, chest puffed out and shoulders back, challenging the very dance itself to a faceoff.

Kierah “KIKI” King, long and lanky, spins and spirals like a kite caught in the wind.
Sara “Calypso” Torres, dressed in an oversized orange t-shirt and matching cargo pants, defies expectations with a sultry confidence, with soft, circling arms beckoning a resemblance to a stature of a Terpsichorean muse.

And finally, Dion “iCrisis” Randle, dancing mainly in the krump style, is a smoldering bomb ready to blow, with spontaneous depth charges  bubbling up into his chest, causing pained expressions of restraint on his face—look out, he’s gonna blow!
The crew converges for a short group number to Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Loved”, a cool-down before the main event, where each dancer gets one more chance to show off what they got.

“How I Found My Feet Again” is a solo work created by and starring Keyierra Colllins, whose work focuses on how dance and movement can be used to heal trauma experienced by people of the African Diaspora. Collins, dressed in an airy white romper accented by her short, blue-colored hair and matching eye shadow, enters a surreal landscape made of two parallel rivers of roses—red, pink, yellow, white—atop which rests a ring of roses surrounding a small mystery box and a small device on a stand. As recordings of different drums produce nodding counter rhythms, Collins bows, scrapes, and submerges into and between the rivers of flowers, surfacing to perform a balletic pirouette which morphs into a coquettish two-step. Following a short film featuring a pair of feet with red nail polish (Collins’?) beating out a soft rhythm, Collins permeates the ring, pulls a change of costume from the box, and starts beating green and yellow sticks together in front of the standing device. (I’m still not certain what the device is or is for.) Collins, grooving and singing to a song that only she can hear, engages the audience in a call and response of guttural moans and high-pitched “yips.” As she leaves the circle and crouches in the river of roses, the sound of a million marbles being thrown down a stone staircase mirrors the intensity of her blue-lined eyes. She stares out, stalking her prey, but relinquishes at the last moment, choosing instead to end on a word, “Inhale!”

“Trust in Life,” a new work by Keisha “KJ Light” Janae and the dancer collective, Eternal Resolve. The lights come up on a man (Dasaun Sanford) and a woman (Tuyeni Akanke Smith) standing back-to-back and pleading with each other via abstract aphorisms. “Firm in the ground are my toes and my heels, so I guess I am healing,” says the man, and the woman, in turn, says, “Tune in and stay in tune with yourself; your words hold weight, so be conscious.”

Following the tête-à-tête, they are joined by the rest of the congregation, a processional entering from the lobby entrance. “I am Enlightenment,” says Janae in a commanding voice. “Do you feel pulled?” she asks while leading the audience in a vulnerability purification exercise. She then invites the audience to follow two of the congregation into the lobby to witness “three activations,” or to bear witness from their seats via a projection on the back wall. In the lobby, the two disciples advance and retreat from each other, sparring with viper-like attacks and serpentine dodges. The ceremony comes to a head, literally, as the two butt their foreheads together like enraged bulls, while Janae encourages them on, saying “Where there is doubt, there is friction.” Back on stage, the light dims as the congregation gathers and bathes each other from a small wash basin at the foot of the stage, each one purified of their vulnerability.

There were worried rumblings in the dance community that post-COVID creations would look a little too familiar, with people performing trapped in tiny boxes, wrapped in full-body masks, doing a duet with their phone… And there certainly is that, but all dance in Chicago is not a monolith, as the choreographers and dancers of the South Loop Spark Plug have aptly demonstrated.

Thanks to incubatory residencies like this one, the last two years have seen the seeds of creativity being quietly sown and nurtured throughout the fertile grounds of the Chicago dance community. Now, it’s interesting to see how they are growing, this being one of the first examples of many to come.