On March 30, Links Hall celebrated its 40th anniversary with a gala event and evening of performances called “LinkSircus” co-curated by Bob Eisen, a Links Hall co-founder, and producer Bonnie Brooks of Third Way Projects. Showcasing work from a few professional Chicago dance/performance companies, independent dance artists, and a visual artist, the evening was packed to the brim with positive creative energy, support, and all-around good cheer.
“I just have to say,” said the woman sitting next to me, “it feels so good to be in a room with artists.” Shaking her head in awe, she continued, “There is just no friction. Everyone is so open and positive.” This comment sort of stopped me in my tracks. I’d definitely been enjoying the vibe of the night, happy to see Links full of people and looking forward to the line-up of performances ahead, but it hadn’t occurred to me that this space, or event, was unique in its spirit of community-minded openness. I guess I take that for granted as I’m frequently in art spaces which strive to cultivate a welcoming feeling of exploration and creativity – especially Links Hall.
But to see the evening from the eyes of someone who is not regularly entrenched in the dance/performance “scene” made me realize how incredibly vital organizations like Links Hall really are. We, as practitioners, tend to expect there will be organizations to support us; otherwise we couldn’t conceptualize our lives and careers as artists. The relationship between organizations and artists truly is symbiotic, even if we aren’t immediately the beneficiaries of their support. Their pursuit helps justify ours and vice versa. But 40 years ago, Links Hall didn’t exist. It took three fringe artists—Carol Bobrow, Charlie Vernon and Bob Eisen—deciding they needed a place to rehearse and signing a lease on a less-than-perfect space in order to make it happen. Since there were few places for experimental makers and movers at that time, the space quickly filled with rentals and performances instigated by people in the community who wanted to give their ideas a try. Who knew it would be the birth of an organization? Thankfully it became, with the help of countless artists, audiences, board members, funders and administrative leaders, what it is today. And it turns out that Links Hall not only serves artists, it provides an outlet for audiences to be part of a friction-less creative community, one that can make them feel safe and inspired.
While it was impossible to see everything at LinkSircus—performances were happening simultaneously in Studio A and Studio B and the audience was encouraged to wander freely between the two, potentially stopping to check out Vernon’s video installation in the lobby and grab a drink at the crowded bar on the way—this viewer saw works by Kristina Isabelle/Michigan City Moves, The Seldoms, Bob Eisen & Jessica Cornish, Asimina Chremos and Honey Pot Performance.
Isabelle shared a characteristically rambunctious and dynamic work titled “Sand: Prelude.” Working with improvised movement and portable speakers attached to long cable chords, the climax of the piece involved Isabelle and her collaborators, Melli Hoppe and Elise Kermani, swinging the speakers around and around like lassos while they stood, faces forward, with their feet planted firmly on the ground. You got the sense these women were conjuring something in the space, and that something was not to be trifled with.
Chicago dance mainstays, The Seldoms, showed excerpts from their newest work-in-progress, “Floe.” Shifting and cracking like the melting of an iceberg, the dancers connected to one another with their hands on shoulders, hips and thighs as they concentrated on moving as a unit amdist the challenge of adjusting physical tensions. Relating to climate change, the piece included banter about believing or disbelieving the topic of global warming with company member Sarah Gonsiorowski in the unfortunate, yet comedic, role of a “Flat Earther.”
Next, Bob Eisen, Jessica Cornish, and visual artist Thomas Melvin shuffled on stage to perform “New Duet.” While Melvin created a real-time painting on white paper covering three large windows on the studio’s back wall, Eisen and Cornish danced brilliantly, mostly separate but together. With his loose-limbed body and funny face-making style, Eisen kicked, ran, rolled, and bumped around the stage with the kind of expertise and whimsy only a life-long dancer can muster. Cornish was the perfect stage partner for Eisen, willing to fling her hyper-flexible body around and clown it up. She was also unafraid to (literally) push back against a dancer almost forty-years her senior. As Melvin continued to swipe color against the wall, Eisen and Cornish worked up quite a sweat dancing full out and hamming around. The audience could barely hold their applause.
Many of us walked in late on Asimina Chremos’s solo “Passé” and she wouldn’t let us sneak by unnoticed. With the hyper-alertness of an expert improviser, she waited for, watched, and matter-of-factly directed each newcomer to “come in” and “take a seat.” Were we being scolded? What sort of state was she in besides the state of presence? I couldn’t’ tell. Eventually, having absorbed the sounds, sights, temperature, and energy in the room she exploded into a beautiful and fierce string of movement riding it through and out until she laughed and announced “the end.”
Honey Pot Performances’ “Ways of Knowing” performed by Abra Johnson and Meida McNeal, with Jo de Presser on sound, was the most sentient of the evening. Johnson and McNeal took their time sitting face-to-face, breathing, rubbing their legs, and warming up. Their pace and intention were so different than the three works I had seen before causing me to lean forward, quiet my mind, and tap in to the world they were creating. Using text and movement they funneled us into an experience that was both personal and theoretical with lush yet tempered physicalities. I’m looking forward to the development of this work.
I would have liked to see what J’Sun Howard & Jennifer Karmin, Same Planet Performance Project, Zephyr, and Tom Lee & Rika Lin were up to, but a gal’s gotta choose. While it would have been nice to see more variety in the curatorial decisions—the evening favored Western contemporary dance and improvisation— overall the work demonstrated excellence in the field and wrapped a neat bow around a sample of what happens, currently and historically, here in Chicago.
The evening ended with everyone congregated in Studio A for much applause and well-deserved congratulations to all current and former board members, staff, artists, and audiences who have made Links Hall the thriving community that it is. We specifically honored director Roell Schmidt, who announced that our beloved Links is in the best shape it has ever seen and after 10 years with the organization, this will be her final season. “It is time,” she said, “to make space for the next leader.” Links has certainly survived transitions before, but she will be missed.
Links Hall is a beacon in Chicago, known by other cities in the United States and around the world as a symbol of opportunity and dynamism. It is integral to our experimental performance ecosystem. Personally, I never would have moved to Chicago if Links didn’t exist. Coming from the dance/performance scene in Minneapolis, I was uncertain what the Chicago community had to offer. But I knew there was Links Hall and as long as that could be a touchstone, I would be fine. Links Hall and its staff—Schmidt, Felicia Holman, Anna Trier and Brett Swinney—has opened doors for me and facilitated my career as a dance maker and writer in innumerable ways, and I am forever grateful for the work that they do. While I’m at it, I‘m forever grateful for the work of my fellow Chicago artists and the support of our audiences. We can’t do this alone. Here’s to the next 40 years.