At the Roundhouse, Red Clay celebrates 10 years of putting African diaspora stories first

This year marked several milestone anniversaries for some of the most important and influential voices, companies and organizations in Chicago’s dance community. Among them, Red Clay Dance—an Afro-contemporary dance company founded by dancer/choreographer Vershawn Sanders-Ward, celebrates 10 years of “creating, performing and teaching dances of the African Diaspora” on the South side of Chicago. The company’s 10th anniversary featured La Femme Festival—a biannual festival celebrating black female choreographers, curated by Sanders-Ward, Lela Aisha (FlyGround, Philadelphia) and Aaliyah Christina (Catalyst Mvmnt, Chicago)—and the premiere of “Art of Resilience 2.0,” a new work by the Chicago-native, Sanders-Ward, influenced by the 2017 “Art of Resilience.” 

This second iteration activated the DuSable Museum Roundhouse, a former 19th century horse stable designed by Chicago-based architect Daniel Burnham. The Roundhouse is currently part of the DuSable Museum of African American History and Culture’s renovation project to transform and expand their current exhibition space. However, for the weekend, the domed building crowned with rainbow colored windows is a performance space complete with hand-made, wooden, sprung dance floors courtesy of the partnership between Sweetwater Foundation and Onye Ozuzu’s “Project Tool”. 

As audience members arrive, they are invited to engage with the “Walking Museum”—a set of objects (and dancers themselves) roped off around the space honoring elders from Chicago’s South side, and accompanied with stories found in the online program. Dressed in denim overalls, white t-shirts, and Converse sneakers, the all-black woman ensemble (Leanna Allen, Chaniece Holmes, Marceia Scruggs, Destiny Young and Sara Ziglar) seems to be preparing for work as they warm up on the sides, post up against the beams and talk with folks—blurring the lines between performer/audience member.

Set to the melodic sounds of DJ Sadie Woods, there is no clear beginning to the work. One dancer begins a playful ritual sequence, as audience members continue to find their seats, and the lights dim to a calm lavender. The dancers’ spines undulate and twist, and their feet stomp in line with the wah-wah of Miles Davis’ trumpet, the doon, doon of the blues guitar, and the vibrato of Mahalia Jackson. They clap their hands, beat their bodies and invite the audience to join in this collective work to remember, reimagine, and heal. Avery R. Young’s powerful vocals paired with the rigorous choreography reflect a Southern, gospel storytelling tradition that gets us caught up/wrapped up in the ritual of remembering. Resilience lies in the process of remembering and our willingness to work it out in our bodies, and Red Clay places black women at the center of this work. 

However, even with the stunning production and centering of African diasporic stories in the movement and music, the evening contained a lot of moving parts that seemed repetitive at times and bit underdeveloped. I remember thinking about the Roundhouse itself, and wondering about its place in the development of Chicago’s Black Belt and the artistic/political movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Being one of the first dance activations at the Roundhouse, I wondered about how the work could have further engaged with the history of the building. What stories and voices are lodged in its bricks and mortar? Who were the people that worked there? And what can we learn about resilience—the decision to thrive even in the face of erasure—in the stories of black women like Margaret T. Burroughs, who founded the DuSable in her home in 1961. 

Even still, Red Clay’s 10th anniversary performance introduces the Roundhouse as a potential performance space, especially considering the limited spaces already available to artists living and working on the South side. The women of Red Clay remain as one of the most important companies led by black women, committed to telling the stories of the people of the African diaspora and connecting us all to a larger narrative of liberation. And, while there is still more work to be done, 10 years is an accomplishment, and so we take this time to celebrate.


Red Clay Dance presents “Art of Resilience 2.0” concludes tonight at the DuSable Museum Roundhouse, 740 E. 56th Place. Tickets are $100, available by clicking the event page below.