Links Hall’s Midwest Nexus Program Culminates with Five-part Trade Routes Festival

Many good ideas in the arts start and end with a grant. The seed – the concept and vision – that grows into a production is, for many artists, reliant on institutional, state, or local funding. And once that dance has blossomed, it often must be put on a shelf until it withers, as the artist looks to the next idea and the next grant.

Presenting organizations and venues face a similar challenge, envisioning programs and securing the money to see them through, only to have that funding peter out in the next grant cycle, or the one after that. Despite significant cuts in institutional funding, Links Hall has somehow managed to keep afloat programs like Co-MISSIONS (an evolution of the LinkUP choreographic residency) and the Artistic Associates curatorial residency, in part by creating a “commissioning collective” of private donors making multi-year commitments.  The future of the Midwest Nexus touring exchange similarly depends on the success of building the commissioning collective as the Boeing Company grant supporting it comes to an end.

Designed to address the challenges artists face in self-producing work that is ready for touring, Midwest Nexus was created in direct response to the stalemate between independent artists and presenters – particularly those making work in the Midwest. “There’s this big city, and all this work happening, and not a lot of resources to help support artists to go out and tour,” said Roell Schmidt, the director of Links Hall. As an advocate for Midwestern artists on the national and international stage, Schmidt continually heard things like, “I know a lot is going on in Chicago, I just don’t know what it is,” from her counterparts on the coasts. She saw artists pouring months – years, even – into projects that would be performed three times in a weekend at Links Hall. “Where does [the work] have its chance to grow and go up again?” she asked. 

The Midwest Nexus touring exchange is an extension of an earlier program pairing local companies with a production intern and a mentor to create two concerts locally – one at Links Hall and one at the Menomonee Club’s Fasseas Whitebox (A disclosure: As the former performing arts coordinator at Menomonee Club, I was a pilot choreographer for the Apprentice Producer Program). The idea was to give artists a chance to learn from the audience’s response to their work and let it evolve and change for a second concert, while placing increasing focus on the skills needed to self-produce their work. Midwest Nexus further helps artists to be seen outside of Chicago, awarding them $1500 stipends to offset travel costs to present work in another city.

 “The other question is: how do you make sure the experience of touring is not a negative one?” said Schmidt. “Not because touring is negative, but because everywhere it can be a difficult time getting audience for an unknown artist.” The result was to create Midwest Nexus as an artistic exchange – one shared bill at Links, and one in the home city of an out-of-town artist.

 Synapse Arts toured to Minneapolis as a test run for the program, with Khecari and Bay Area-based Blind Tiger Society, Vershawn Sanders Ward and FlyGround in Philadelphia, plus David Boykin and Joshua Kent forming additional like-minded artistic exchanges that took them across the country to test their work against unfamiliar audiences. The goal is to use an already-made, tourable work. In recent years applications have been available only to artists who have been nominated for the program. “We felt this was necessary,” said Schmidt, “because if you’re making a new work, your focus is going to be on the work. But if you’re hosting somebody from out of town, you really need to be focused on the presenting side, not the creation side, in order to do a good job.”

This year, the review panel got five great proposals from all five nominees. Not ones to forego an opportunity for abundance, Links opted to let the Boeing grant end with a bang and kept them all, and the Trade Routes Festival was born, with five double-bills at Links Hall over two weekends. An even bigger benefit: each applicant chose artistic partners they really admired, and “we were all really excited that they said yes!” said Schmidt. 

Interdisciplinary performer Mitsu Salmon presents her solo work “Tsuchi” with an excerpt from University of Iowa assistant professor Michael Sakamoto’s current project, “blind spot.” “Tsuchi” was most recently presented in October as part of the A-Squared Asian American Performing Arts Festival at Links, using movement and voice and drawing inspiration from her great-grandfather’s immigration to the United States. Salmon and Sakamoto, both Japanese-American, have Butoh in common, but each uses elements of the Japanese dance form that manifest in very different ways. While “Tsuchi” and “blind spot” are similar in that both pieces are autobiographical solo performances by Japanese-Americans, it is the differences between the two works that make the program intriguing. Where Salmon uses contemporary performance art as another source that informs her work, Sakamoto’s other languages include media, photography and hip hop. 

J’Sun Howard presents bits and pieces of his ongoing creation probing at intimacy between men of color called “Working on Better Versions of Prayers” with New York’s Brother(hood) Dance!, which similarly explores the experience of queer African-American men in the duet “how to survive a plague”. Howard’s glorious “Prayers” was developed, in part, through Jessica Marasa’s six month works-in-progress residency called SET FREE, and will at last see its world premiere in February as one of two Co-MISSIONS fellowships at Links (the other was awarded to Ayako Kato) after Trade Routes has ended. 

Puppeteers Myra Su and Maryland-based Emily Schubert; Graham-based contemporary dance companies Winifred Haun & Dancers and Madison’s Kanopy Dance; and the high-tech performance artists from ATOM-r with Detroiters Stefanie Cohen and Corey Gearhart (together known as Upended Teacups) complete the festival’s line-up. Considered together, this outstanding conglomeration of artists demonstrate the breadth and depth of Links Hall’s appetite, and its refreshingly open-ended definition of dance. But you don’t have to take my word for it; a festival pass allows patrons to catch every show, and see for themselves. 

The Trade Routes Festival begins Thursday, running through Dec. 9 at Links Hall, 3111 N. Western Ave. Single event tickets are $12-15, with festival passes available for $40. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit Links Hall’s SCD venue page.


Lauren Warnecke is the dance writer and critic for the Chicago Tribune.