Taking the show on the road: GRUNT builds artists’ capacity for touring, strengthening their work in the process

Most working dance artists in Chicago have a connection to The Space Movement Project (TSMP), even if you’ve never heard of them. For seven years, TSMP managed Outer Space Studios, a staple rehearsal venue at 1474 N. Milwaukee Ave. now operated by Jessica Marasa and The Watering Can. Outer Space has its quirks, with its super steep stairs, narrow configuration adorned with open concept kitchens, and, at the time TSMP ran it, a hilarious black and teal door that never quite closed right. But those white walls and gleaming wood floors are a treasured asset, and some of the most affordable studio space in the city thanks in large part to its loving landlords.

Managing director Anne Kasdorf says its role at Outer Space, which doubled as the company’s rehearsal space, was built into TSMP’s mission. “We’ve always seen ourselves as a performance company that also has a service component. So, we ran Outer Space as a way to offer subsidized rentals to artists and ultimately decided we wanted to move away from that to be able to spend more time focusing on our own performance.” In addition to TSMP, Kasdorf is head dance faculty of the early childhood division at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.

Around the time that TSMP was transitioning out of managing Outer Space, company member Allyson Esposito, who has since relocated to Boston, met a Minneapolis-based choreographer named April Sellers. Sellers was anxious to develop a network that would allow smaller companies to tour without losing their shirts and/or performing to empty houses in cities where they don’t have an audience base. 

“You get to a city, and you don’t really have resources,” said Kasdorf. “Maybe you’re able to book a theater, but how do you bring in audiences? How do you really build a lasting relationship with that venue or that city in general, so you can maybe come back or build some type of audience beyond where ever you’re from?”

In 2017, Sellers’ partnership with TSMP blossomed into GRUNT, or the Grassroots US National Tour. “Allyson thought, well, TSMP is looking for something to rebuild that service component," said Kasdorf. "So, is there a way that we could jump in and help to launch this network?”

What makes GRUNT unique from other touring opportunities, which now includes artists working in Chicago, Detroit, Boston, New Jersey and Minneapolis, is how network members build what they call host city packages. Artists in each city deal with the venue, booking teaching opportunities, helping to acquire affordable lodging and doing most of the heavy lifting with marketing to their local audiences.

It became apparent that bringing more than one local group into the network would only strengthen the potential of each tour, so Sellers recruited Chicago’s J’Sun Howard, who she’d worked with on Poonie’s Cabaret, and TSMP brought in Ashley Fargnoli, who saw GRUNT in 2017 and was eager to get involved.

After the premiere of Fargnoli’s “Sleeptalk,” she was looking for a way to bring the show on the road, so to speak. Fargnoli, a choreographer and dance movement therapist, created “Sleeptalk” from her work abroad as a trauma therapist working with individuals fleeing countries impacted by war. She and her dancers weren’t quite ready to let the project go, having developed it over years to perform it three times. And Fargnoli recognized that the GRUNT network of cities all had communities of dance therapy practitioners who might respond positively to “Sleeptalk.”

“I thought this would be a wonderful way to share this work with dance movement therapists and to have it grow,” Fagnoli said in a phone interview. “That was one of my goals beyond just exposure. Everyone was so invested in the process – the process was so lovely – and that’s why we wanted to keep it going.”

Howard has toured extensively with choreographer Darrell Jones. A collaboration with Brotherhood Dance, supported by Links Hall’s Midwest Nexus program – a now-defunct touring exchange similar to GRUNT – helped bring his own choreography to New York; he’s also toured to Detroit and Minneapolis.

Howard said he’s gained more opportunities by visiting other places, and also likes seeing how his work evolves as it travels from city to city. “For me, yes, it’s nice to go on tour and hopefully build audiences, but what’s more interesting to me is how the works fit into these spaces and communities, how it can change and how it grows from the initial idea into something totally different. It’s kind of like planting little seeds here and there, and seeing what can happen.”

Putting it all together is a bit like a complicated jig-saw puzzle, filling in companies, mostly in groups of twos and threes, across the network based on compatibility and scheduling. The Chicago edition of GRUNT, opening this weekend at Links Hall, is uniquely supported by Links’ efforts to completely subsidize rentals in its 40th season. So across two weekends – one in April and one in May – audiences can see TSMP, Howard and Fargnoli’s work, as well as that of Sellers, Sarah Weber-Gallo of New Jersey, and Boston’s Molly Hess and Abilities Dance in a kind of super GRUNT during Chicago Dance Month.

Unlike a conventional festival, Howard, Kasdorf and Fargnoli said they most value the opportunity to engage more deeply with other artists.

“I think if we were going somewhere to do a festival and showing 10 minutes of work, it’s a little bit like you’re in and out, like passing ships, with the other artists. I think that [GRUNT] is really valuable, that we’re able to make connections with an artist who I wouldn’t have known before.”

To preserve this benefit, GRUNT builds in time to share a meal or even just hang out as part of the host city packages. Kasdorf says the goal is to create an artist-driven model that’s always flexible to the needs of the network. So this connection time is critical to GRUNT’S success.

Having a few dozen artists in town to experience Chicago’s dance community and share their work sounds like a win-win for audiences, too, especially as our local dance makers create opportunities to learn and grow with each other.

“It reminds me that we are all dancers, doing whatever hustle we need to do to make it work,” said Kasdorf. “I appreciate having discovered all of the different ways we all make it work. … You don’t have to be a large company with a huge budget in order to do this.”


GRUNT runs April 12-14 and May 10-12 at Links Hall, 3111 N. Western Ave. Tickets are $10-40. For artist line-ups and tickets, click the event link below.