This week, "New Dances,” a local incubator for choreographic talent, ends its three-week, intensive process with three performances at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts. Six brand new works from six emerging choreographers featuring a troupe of 16 dancers in a Chicago dance landmark…what a great way to continue celebrating Chicago Dance Month. And all thanks to two women from Evanston.
While they didn’t know each other growing up (they attended different dance schools), Melissa Thodos and Julie Nakagawa later found themselves to be kindred spirits. Thodos has been a part of “New Dances” since 1985, when she was a member of Chicago Repertory Dance Ensemble (CRDE) where it began. Her namesake company, Thodos Dance Chicago (TDC), resurrected the program in 2001. Nakagawa and DanceWorks Chicago (DWC) joined as partners in 2017, and, yes, the rest is Chicago dance history.
“‘New Dances’ was always something that was very special,” said Thodos. “It was always my intent to continue to create an environment where artists could grow not only as a dancer, but also as a teacher and choreographer.” After asking for their blessings from "New Dances" co-founders Barbara Stein and Meade Palidofsky, Thodos was ready to bring life back into the project that had given her so much, including the start of her choreographic career. Her 1986 work Reaching There, featuring a large wheel became her signature piece and eventually generated two additional works for her company. “To have 'New Dances’ still be going is incredibly moving to me. It’s really full circle. Pun intended.”
As TDC was shifting to a new, more project-based structure, it was the perfect time to incorporate a partner to keep the ‘New Dances’ project thriving. Enter Nakagawa. She taught a company class warm-up before one of the performances and stayed to watch. Later while reading the program notes (“Yes, I read the program!”), she saw the note about looking for a partner. After a fateful lunch at Third Coast Café, the two directors merged for a greater cause. “We’re both focused on Chicago artists and are about the process,” Nakagawa said. “Melissa and I complete each other’s sentences. We don’t have to come back to the vision board or mission statement, because we’re already on the same page. Our organizations have very similar missions in terms of providing a platform for artists.” Thodos likens it to the overlap in a Venn diagram. “We have a shared central core.”
The process for New Dances begins with the auditions which are free, to be equitable and remove any barriers to participation. It is a long day for the dancers who are workshopping for six different choreographers. “The first lesson for the choreographers is how to be in the front of the room,” said Nakagawa. “Most of the dancers I’ve never seen before, which is great. It’s really about community building. We’re basically putting together a small repertory company of 16 dancers.”
Once the in-person portion of “New Dances” begins, it’s a whirlwind. Isabella Limosnero, 23, participated last year as a dancer, but is choreographing for the program for the first time this year. With a West Coast background of competitive dance and studying at Alonso King LINES Ballet, as well at the San Francisco Conservatory, they bring a fresh, diverse take to the table. “I can’t really describe the pull I had to dance,” they said, “but I showed up every day and had the desire to keep going, to keep dancing, to be creative, and to be whimsical.”
Limosnero’s new, eight-minute piece is a reflection on the wine-making process. “I’ve made a lot of material over the years, so I plucked a few phrases to use. My concept is non-vintage wine and there are phrases that represent the harvest of the grapes, process of crushing, juicing and pressing, the fermentation, the bottling. It’s super exciting to see my material still alive and on other people.”
As for structure, "New Dances" feels like a two-week summer intensive with a tech week and performances added on at the end. There are daily company classes taught by Nakagawa, Thodos, and each of the choreographers. Class is mandatory for the dancers, but all are also free and open to the public. Then rehearsals for the rest of the day with a lunch break. This year, week one took place at the Dance Center at Columbia College and week two at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts where the performances take place. Veteran lighting designer Jacob Snodgrass joins the team to tie the show together.
After each performance, there will be a Q&A with the choreographers, so they get experience talking about their work. That is coupled with a mid-process feedback session with a panel including Nakagawa and Thodos, which is something Thodos added when she revived the project. “To have an opportunity to have your work seen and reflected back to you is such a valuable experience,” she said.
With 40 years being such a milestone achievement, what do they think about the future of “New Dances?” “I’m grateful to be part of something that has been around through its ups and downs for 40 years,” Nakagawa said. “I do not take that for granted. We are standing on the shoulders of the people who came before us, hopefully honoring their work. And, hopefully, creating a pathway for the people who come after us. We’re trying to plant seeds of growth.” Thodos sees “New Dances” continuing. “It’s structured so it’s moveable,” she said. “We grow it by observing what it is every year, what it needs every year, but everything hones back to what are the needs of the art and the artists. That changes every year. It has to evolve. We want it to continue in Chicago and support the next generation and to continue to move within the community.”
In 2001, then Chicago Tribune critic, Lucia Mauro wrote, “‘New Dances’ remains a noble project…as a platform for choreographic development and performance opportunities, ‘New Dances’ is critical.” As a unique, community-based choreographic project, we hope that “New Dances” will be around, in some form, for another 40 years.
"New Dances" by Thodos Dance Chicago and DanceWorks Chicago performs Thursday, June 22 – Saturday, June 24 at 7:00 PM at the Ruth Page Center for Dance, 1016 N. Dearborn St. Tickets are $40 general admission, $20 industry., and $100 for general admission 6/24 performance ticket and post-show celebration at Nico Osteria. Tickets available at thodosdancechicago.org and danceworkschicago.org.