First things first: When I entered the Avondale neighborhood to get my first glimpse of Stephanie Martinez’ new dance company, Para.Mar Dance Theatre, I was stunned by the number of Black Lives Matter signs hanging in windows of homes, on doors in coffee shops—even staked into immaculate lawns. As a Black woman from the South Side, the solidarity was appreciated but I questioned it. I carried my hesitance with me into the parking lot where Para.Mar’s inaugural performance was to take place. Disappointed that I arrived too late for the company’s pre-show community dance class, it was a relief to see I was just in time to catch the tail end of their warm-up, which was guided by the fresh sounds of trap soul blaring through a set of speakers.
I began to loosen up. Among the diverse crowd were families with small children, photographers, young people using wheelchairs, middle-aged art goers and curious stragglers. I got my Shazam ready, found my seat on the concrete and began to focus in on the nine seated dancers, split along the perimeter of the makeshift stage. Dancer Chase Buntrock took center stage and locked energy with Ching Ching Wong on the sidelines. Toting a black fedora, Bloom began to manipulate Wong’s faint muscle contractions from a distance. I was excited to spend an afternoon experiencing many firsts: my first outdoor performance of the year, my first parking lot ballet and my first time seeing Para.Mar, who was performing Martinez’ newest work, “Kiss.”
Spirited by a musical composition of deconstructed Mozart, kissing sound effects and baby talk envisioned by composer Darryl J. Hoffman, the ensemble follows its own rules, with rolling tails and pirouettes on pavement moving with a soulful purpose: to display their love for one another and dance by any means necessary.
Diverse in ethnicity yet speaking the same movement language, Para.Mar flexed ballet technique that could go toe to toe with any of Chicago’s long-standing ballet companies—in socks—flaunting envious extensions and arabesques for days. Vignettes of steamy partnering percolated in between impressive lifts and cloth-covered kisses. They swept their bodies across a red, carpeted stage on a horizontal plane, reeling in not just their designated audience but cyclists in the bike lanes as well. In that moment, I knew this was beyond making dance accessible. This was about making dance essential.
Although Para.Mar is fresh out the kitchen, becoming official only in July, choreographer and artistic director Stephanie Martinez is a seasoned contemporary ballet choreographer, boasting a repertoire of original works for Ballet Hispanico, Luna Negra Dance Theater and the Joffrey Ballet. As with all things born out of adversity, it should come as no surprise that Para.Mar has something to declare. Life is happening, movement is happening and it’s happening on the street, among the people, where it belongs. Although they are vocal about their intent to be for the people (“para,” Spanish for “for,” is a nod toward this mission), it is also clear that they are with the people, inviting us to revisit our assumptions, engaging with one another through community dance classes and performing exceptional choreography at a grassroots level, in a parking lot in a primarily working class Polish and Latino neighborhood. Unbeknownst to me at the time of the performance was that over 20 African American settlers lived in Avondale in the late 1800s. Perhaps their spirits led me to notice the Black Lives Matter signs.