Artists have to make art to thrive. It’s that simple, because if you don’t, the creative muscle atrophies, or worse. If you’re an artist and you can’t make art, your soul tends to sputter and cough and gasp for breath, just to stay alive. This is especially true, both literally and figuratively, for dance artists, for whom the physical danger, isolation and restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic have been especially tough.
“How can we thrive within the parameters we have now,” is the question Stephanie Martinez asked herself six months ago, when it looked as if rehearsing in person and performing indoors would not be an option any time soon. She felt compelled to find a way to give herself and her esteemed dance colleagues a way to sustain their work.
Her answer was Para.Mar, the new, Chicago-based contemporary ballet repertory company of which she is founding artistic director. The name derives from a merging of Para, Spanish for “together,” “with,” and “for,” and Mar, the first three letters of her last name, Martinez. She wanted the company name to give homage to her Latina heritage, and for her company to recognize and serve a diverse community of artists and audiences with affordable access to the highest quality dance and genuine community engagement.
To that end, she conceived of “THAWEN,” (May 22-23 at Rockwell on the River) Para.Mar's first indoor live, in-person concert dance production, and one of the first indoor Chicago dance events since the pandemic began.
The program features Martinez’ reconfiguration of “Kiss” (2020) plus world premieres by Jennifer Archibald, founding director of Arch Dance Company in New York and Lucas Crandall, currently coordinator and repetiteur of Nederlands Dance Theatre, and formerly of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.
There is no translation to be found for the word “THAWEN.” In a recent phone conversation, Martinez said the name came to her as an expression of how we are gradually emerging from the deep freeze of winter and COVID confinement and thawing out into a springtime of blossoming, new life and hope.
“This concert has been in the making with a thousand pivots,” Martinez said. “We found a venue, then that fell through, and then (we found) Rockwell on the River.” She describes it as “a massive place.” Over 20,000 square feet houses event space, a distillery, coffee house, taproom and brewery, farm-to-fork restaurants, riverfront marina, boat docks and concept kitchen.
The one thing Rockwell on the River is not is a theatre, which intrigued Martinez, who wanted a non-traditional space in which to curate the event. There is no proscenium and no stage at Rockwell. “It’s not a traditional evening,” she said, never having attempted anything like this before. “I’ve thrown caution to the wind!”
Each of the five performances will admit only 75 masked people. Each performance will offer a unique perspective due to the available natural light at the different time of day of each performance, calling for varying use of theatrical lighting by Strong Fox Designs.
Non-linear in structure, the three pieces shift between one another, creating what Martinez calls “a seamless continuity and connective tissue.” The enormous red rug that covered the cement parking lot for the outdoor premiere of “Kiss” last October is now cut into three different sizes and shapes, visually connecting all three pieces. “Kiss” uses ramps and a 62-foot runway of rug, while Crandall’s solo for dancer Ching Ching Wong uses a diagonal runway. And Jennifer Archibald uses her rug to define a proscenium-style space.
“It’s an evening of different emotions,” Martinez said, “taking the viewer on a journey. Act one of “Kiss,” for seven dancers, opens the program with lighthearted high-jinks and tongue-in-cheek social satire, all set to composer Daryll J. Hoffman’s sound score.
Crandall’s “Threshold,” with a soundscape by Noelle Kaiser, follows with a “highly disruptive” quality that approximates stream-of-consciousness, psychological agitation and deeply personal transformation. The movement is “a beast to navigate,” according to Martinez, with sudden dynamic shifts and contrasting extremes.
Act two of Martinez' “Kiss” follows. A final shift concludes the event with the nuanced physicality of Archibald’s hip-hop influenced contemporary ballet, “Walk,” for five dancers. “As a woman of color, she’s authentic in her own skin, her movement vocabulary confident, angular and percussive… Nothing ever looks the same. She really creates on her dancers with rhythmic changes, surprises and lots of soul in her work,” Martinez says of her colleague.
The rehearsal process was hybrid, with two weeks spent over Zoom in people’s apartments. Now, the dancers, who hail from various companies and locations, are all in Chicago for two weeks of in-person, studio rehearsing. Martinez says she feels like a football coach drawing diagrams to map it all out.
“It’s thrilling to rehearse live now,” Martinez said. “The dancers get all choked up getting used to the physicality of vigorous, wonderful, tender dancing.”
“THAWEN” will keep both dancers and audience in motion, as the audience encounters each of the three choreographic works in a different spatial environment and from contrasting vantage points.
Some of the work is presented in the round, some proscenium-style, some on an angular trajectory, with musical cues signaling scene changes and “audience movers” in place to usher patrons from one environment to another. Color-coded masks will define who goes where and when. “I’m not just choreographing,” Martinez said. “It’s a totally immersive experience.”
Martinez hopes the audience will feel nourished by the connectivity that has been so missing in our lives this past year. “As a collective, we are all searching for a sense of wholeness and an authentic connection. I hope,” she adds, “that the audience will feel a little more alive when they leave!”
Para.Mar Dance Theatre's "THAWEN" takes place Saturday and Sunday at Rockwell on the River, 3057 N Rockwell St. Tickets are pay-what-you-can, with attendance restricted to 50 people per performance. For more information, visit the event link below.