Editor's note: The August 25 "Goshen" preview was cancelled due to weather. The piece will now appear as part of Deeply Rooted's appearance in the "Made in Chicago" dance series at the Auditorium Theatre on Oct. 23. For tickets and details, click the link below.
How do you honor a 25-year history and current growth spurt while also celebrating the return of (at least outdoor) live performance? If you’re Deeply Rooted Dance Theater (DRDT), you present a “re-preview” of a gospel work telling the story of Exodus through song and dance on the Pritzker Pavilion stage in Millennium Park. “Goshen,” premiering Wednesday, dives into spiritual and biblical themes in a 45-minute creative collaboration featuring the DRDT company, local choral talent, five choreographers, and some of gospel music’s biggest voices. I recently spoke with the artistic team of Kevin Iega Jeff (co-founder and creative/executive director), Gary Abbott (co-founder and associate artistic director) and Nicole Clarke-Springer (artistic director) about this week’s show and DRDT’s 25th anniversary.
“I can’t believe it’s been 25 years. I can’t get my mind wrapped around it,” Abbott said. “I remember the first day. I remember the obstacles and challenges. I remember how frightening it was for me to even think about being in the same room with Iega and the other artists. Being in the room with all that talent really tripped me out. I feel blessed to have been a part of it.”
Clarke-Springer’s journey with the company began 23 years ago and she has lived every level of DRDT from summer intensive student to artistic director. “It’s been a journey that I have enjoyed,” she said. “It’s meant so much to my personal life and who I am as a woman, a Black woman. Iega and Gary have really helped me become a strong leader. They provided a space to strengthen my choreographic voice with love and support. This company is the little engine that could. I feel gratitude.”
The name Deeply Rooted comes from a poem by Malcom X about the impact of arts and artists. Jeff’s sister came across it while doing research and he found it to be the perfect title for an upcoming recital he was working on in Brooklyn. Years later in Chicago, Jeff found the flyer and revived the name.
“It’s not just about dancing, but about how dance transforms lives and community,” he said. “The social impact of the arts on Black communities, particularly in my life as a young Black man, was transformational. It helped me understand who I am in Creation in a world that didn’t always affirm the value of Black people. It’s important we dance in a way that people feel entertained, and revealed, and free. But it’s important they understand who they are in Creation relative to who everyone else is too. We aren’t on this planet alone.”
It is in that spirit and spiritual approach to artistic creation that breathes life into “Goshen.” DRDT joins forces with Grammy-winner Donald Lawrence, singer Le’Andria Johnson, choirmaster Zeke Locke, the Tri-City Singers and guest choreographer Tshediso Kabulu in a vibrant collaboration meant to be a “healing performance for the city.”
“That was Nic’s idea,” said Jeff. “We’re all coming out of something that has been very spiritually challenging and the material Donald has written is highly spiritual. We thought it would be a good match.” The idea came last fall as the pandemic continued to deny artists worldwide the chance to perform live. “I thought of the art of creative healing,” Clarke-Springer said. “There is a mission for artists and those who need art. Artists play an important role in society. What we do has a mental and spiritual role in our communities. And the story of Exodus fit. We’re all exiting…coming out of whatever it may be. It’s COVID right now. We’ve been in this wilderness and now we’re coming to the land of milk and honey to have a show. A healing performance.”
Although “Goshen” had its initial preview in December 2019, it is being resurrected and revitalized for the performance on the Pritzker Pavilion stage. “The challenge with Millennium Park is scale – how it reads on stage in terms of scale and impact. It’s such a vast venue,” said Jeff. “We don’t have the advantage of lighting, so it will be more of a musical concert staging. There’s volume in the staging, in the dance, in the singing…and then there’s the relevance of the story.”
Abbott likens it to old tent revivals he attended as a child in the South. “It was all about the ingenuity of all those amazing Black singers to bring us together and get the message out to the people. I hope this feels like that.” Jeff agrees. “We want people to have a good time and feel a spirit of connection inside whatever their personal belief system is,” he said. “There is still something that connects us as human beings.”
“A Deeply Rooted Evening for Chicago’s Healing: Goshen (preview)” takes place Aug. 25 at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, 201 E. Randolph Street. General seating is free. For more information click the event link below or visit www.deeplyrooteddancetheater.org.