While spending time combing through past issues of “Dance Magazine” at the Harold Washington Library, I realized for the first time how prolific dancer/choreographer Ruth Page was during her career. She is mentioned in nearly every issue, often covered by longtime Chicago dance writer Ann Barzel. Page is always pushing boundaries, always moving forward, always working on a new ballet, often to rave reviews. Seeing the immensity of Page’s work spread out in front of me instilled a sense of awe and, as a Chicagoan, a sense of pride.
Since 1971, Chicago has been home to The Ruth Page Center for the Performing Arts, which celebrates its 50th anniversary with the “Ruth Page Festival of Dance,” two evenings of performances at Bennet Gordon Hall located at Ravinia in Highland Park. May 20th features the Ruth Page Civic Ballet in a program that contains both classical and contemporary work. May 21 highlights four of The Center’s in-residence organizations—DanceWorks Chicago, Giordano Dance Chicago, Hedwig Dances and Porchlight Music Theatre. This split program is the perfect opportunity for those who live outside of city limits to get a taste of popular and award-winning Chicago art; concurrently, it’s a nice opportunity for city folk to support local artists and organizations in a more relaxed and pastoral setting.
The program on May 20th pays homage to the legacy of Page with a commissioned work by award-winning and critically acclaimed choreographer Nejla Yatkin, who is to create a fresh take on a piece of classic repertory, Page’s “Expanded Universe.” The original work, choreographed in 1932, is a collaboration between avant-garde sculptor Isamu Noguchi and Page, herself considered one of the “Five Women of the Chicago Avant-Garde” by the Newberry Library. A video of Page’s “Variations on Euclid aka Expanded Universe” from 1938 looks like an abstract painting come to life—fabric is stretched across a body center stage to create a standing hourglass, two black figures wielding long sticks create angular shapes while on pointe, four figures twist and turn in the background, their hands connected to their feet with long, stringy bands. What will Yatkin’s new “Expanded Universe” look like? Just imagining all the different ways the work could be reinterpreted, or borrowed from, or expanded upon, is enough to make me want to go see for myself. And based on Yatkin’s body of work, there is good reason to be excited.
Yatkin, known for creating work that combines elements of contemporary dance, text, sound and multimedia, was a clear choice according to The Ruth Page Civic Ballet’s artistic director, Victor Alexander in a recent interview. “It’s a completely brand-new work with a lot of connecting points to what Ruth did before,” said Alexander. “I think that it is very cohesive, the way that Nejla was able to assume some of [Page’s] ideas… and not get lost in the translation of what happened many years ago.” Alexander is confident in the company’s decision to commission Yatkin, as he tells it, “Probably a year and a half ago, we were just rolling names and we were thinking that Nejla would be the best one to embrace this work just because of the dimension of the choreographic work that she is doing.”
Other works on the May 20th program include such classics as “Le Corsaire,” “Coppelia” Pas de Deux and a variation from “Don Quixiote,” with the final piece in the first act being a work of contemporary ballet by Timothy O’Donnell. Great care went into the selection of these classic works. “During the year,” said Alexander, “especially on the classical part, we have been rehearsing a few classical ballets and then we made the decisions as to what we would present at Ravinia.” In other words, be prepared for the best of their best
The program on May 21 includes the artists and organizations in residence at The Center and covers a range of tastes and styles. DanceWorks Chicago, a modern dance company that focuses on the groups’ individual artists, will be performing “DayDream” by Joshua Manculich with music by Frédéric Chopin. Hedwig Dances brings their signature poetic style of contemporary dance to the stage in a piece titled “The Flowering Mechanisms” by Rigo Saura. Giordano Dance Chicago continues the legacy of Chicago’s deep jazz and modern dance roots with “All For You,” choreographed by Adam Houston, which takes a glimpse into the lives of a couple navigating a relationship. Porchlight Music Theatre provides a palette cleansing performance, bringing to the stage their Jeff Award-winning brand of Broadway-style musical theater that is sure to get your toes tapping.
The sheer amount of work being presented at Ravinia this weekend belies the amount of effort it took to make it happen and no one knows about that better than Silvino da Silva, executive director of The Center. Before being handed the reins in 2020, smack dab in the middle of the COVID pandemic, da Silva served as their director of communications and development, and already knew the ins and outs of the company well enough to formulate a plan. “We needed to pivot a lot in terms of what we had planned for out 50th anniversary,” said da Silva. “We had to delay a lot of things that we were doing, and also rethink stuff.” This kind of internal restructuring focused not only on the performance aspect of the Ruth Page Civic Ballet—itself a pre-professional training program whose level of quality is world renowned—but on equity and diversity within the company as well. Two scholarships named after Lauren Anderson, the first African American to be promoted to principal dancer at Houston Ballet, will provide full tuition, mentorship and housing for BIPOC dancers. Another new award aims at supporting the local dance community, called the “Ruth Page Expanding Universe Award,” also named for Page’s famous work, which is to be given to, as da Silva puts it, “An individual or organization that has extended the boundaries of dance across economic and cultural situations”—this year’s $20,000 award goes to the Chicago Dancemakers Forum, itself a valuable cultural incubator for local Chicago dance artists.
The performances this weekend provide a unique opportunity for suburban audiences to see some Chicago dance, and then some. “We have this opportunity this year to do something special at Ravinia,” said da Silva. “To be able to bring these organizations to the North Shore, to present them to these audiences is something really special. The mixed program on Saturday is extraordinary because it’s not just dance but some theater, too. We have the top performing arts organizations in the city, all in one place, and I’m proud that we were able to do that.”
One thing that you may have noticed regarding the plethora of dance organizations mentioned above is that they each perform similar roles, that of lending aid and resources to dancers in all stages of their careers. And then they turn around and help each other. The web they weave is beautiful and breathtaking, as is the art that they create. This weekend, that web extends beyond the city limits, so do yourself a favor and get caught up in a dance legacy unique to Chicago that spans over 100 years—join me at the library and I’ll show you the papers to prove it.
--- The Ruth Page Civic Ballet performs on May 20th and The Ruth Page Civic Ballet and Guests perform on May 21 at Ravinia, 200 Ravinia Park Rd, Highland Park. Both programs begin at 7:30pm. Tickets are $20 and are available at the box office, or by checking out the event links below.