Hip-hop shapes the narrative in August dance

Chicago’s dance calendar marks the end of summer with Dance for Life and the SummerDance Celebration. Or, rather than signaling the end of summer, maybe these beloved dance events – one that’s nearly 30 years old and another that's in year three – sound the alarms that fall dance is on the way. Before then, there’s still a lot of dance to be seen, much of it using street dance to tell stories. From re-imagined fairy tales to personal encounters with the criminal justice system, hip-hop and street dance artists are drawing from a well of rich narratives on Chicago’s stages this month.

Dance Divas returns to the Baton Show Lounge for the third time, after lying dormant for several years. After 50 years on Clark Street downtown, Baton Show Lounge moved their campy hot spot to the heart of Uptown, where this ridiculous (in the best way) showcase will take place Aug. 4 and 5. This year’s theme: “Bright Lights, Big Cities.” See icons from Vegas (Britney and Celine, I hope), NYC and other cosmopolitan divas brought to life by favorite pro dancers like Fernando Duarte of the Joffrey Ballet, David Schultz and Elliot Hammans from Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Giordano Dance Chicago’s Cesar Selinas, and Imani Williams of DanceWorks Chicago, among others, flaunting their uber-glam, most fabulous selves. Proceeds benefit the Dancers’ Fund, a program which provides emergency aid to dancers and other industry professionals facing serious health conditions. 

Produced by Chicago Dancers United (CDU), Dance Divas comes a couple weeks ahead of CDU’s big annual event, Dance for Life. For nearly three decades, this one-night-only benefit has brought Chicago’s dance community together to party, perform and honor those lost to AIDS. Also benefiting the Dancers’ Fund, Dance for Life broadened its mission years ago to include assistance for any health challenge. Claire Bataille was a recipient of the Fund, a cherished teacher and founding member of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago who died of cancer in late 2018. In addition to the usual suspects – Hubbard Street, Joffrey, Giordano and a community finale by Randy Duncan – the Aug. 17 performance includes dances by Chicago Human Rhythm Project, Ensemble Espanol and Chicago Dance Crash, plus a special tribute to Bataille. Robyn Mineko Williams offers an in-progress performance of her latest piece, “Echo Mine,” which she started in collaboration with Bataille to celebrate four generations of Hubbard Street dancers. A change this year: the order of events is flipped, with the show coming before the gala reception. 

Tara Aisha Willis continues to make her curatorial mark at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), whose August programming highlights black creativity across artistic disciplines with the MCA’s New Works Initiative. On Aug. 16, hip-hop artist and activist Dahlak Brathwaite presents “Try/Step/Trip,” based on Brathwaite’s personal experience with the criminal justice system and, more broadly, what he describes as the “cultural rites of passage” young black men encounter with police and incarceration. In his piece, Brathwaite uses gospel and spoken word as accompaniment for a chorus of Chicago-style steppers. Also at the MCA, on Aug. 23 and 24, Rennie Harris returns to Chicago after last year's "Lazarus" with a new piece inspired by “Oliver Twist.” Original music sung by members of St. Benedict the African and Mosaic Soul anchor this hip-hop version of the Dickensian tale, exploring – as is customary in Harris’ work – faith, morality and community.

Like Harris, Chicago Dance Crash has a knack for the narrative format, with the 2017 “Bricklayers of Oz,” among the company’s best shows to date. Running Aug. 23-31 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, Crash trades Toto for Pinocchio in “Lil Pine Nut,” based on writings by political satirist Carlo Collodi that inspired the Disney movie about a shifty puppet. Let’s be clear: this is not a Disney knock-off. Crash leans into the skilled nuance artistic director Jessica Deahr and choreographers KC Bevis, Jim Morrow and Dionna PridGeon bring to their work, digging into the moral fabric and political implications of a fairy tale, then layering on all the flips, tricks, and awe-inspiring hip-hop you desire.

Finally, the SummerDance Celebration takes over Millennium Park on Aug. 24, with See Chicago Dance’s Dance Village in Wrigley Square running 1-6 p.m., plus daytime demonstrations on the Great Lawn and near Cloud Gate. At 6:30 p.m., Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, the Joel Hall Dancers, Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre and Columbia College’s Rated “E” Dance Crew hit the main stage for a free performance at Pritzker Pavilion, and a dance party to the beats of DJ Selah Say caps off this very full day of dance.

Additional performances in August are listed below: