With virtual South Chicago Dance Festival, Kia Smith is dancing cultural diplomacy

The South Chicago Dance Festival puts legs on the words “cultural diplomacy,” reaching across cultures, ideologies and movement idioms to celebrate the unifying spirit of dance.

The second annual festival, offered virtually this year due to the pandemic, is hosted by the South Chicago Dance Theatre, presenting top professional and student dance companies from Chicago’s South Side in five days of master classes, seminars, and performances beginning Tuesday, and culminating Nov. 21 with a gala concert dance showcase.

“Being virtual has given us a lot of flexibility,” said festival founding director Kia Smith. “It shows us how accessible we can be,” she said in a recent phone conversation, referencing programming that reaches across the country and as far away as South Korea.

“Cultural diplomacy is really important to me,” Smith said. “It’s shown me how much is truly possible when people are open to working with people who are different (from themselves), no matter how different,” she said. In addition to being festival coordinator, Smith is founding artistic director of South Chicago Dance Theatre (SCDT) and an affiliate Youth Training Company.

For Smith, cultural diplomacy grew virtual wings on social media, where she met South Korean dance artist Joseph Kim, founding director of Choomna Dance Company based in Seoul. They began working together virtually in 2018. The following year, Kim flew, with the aid of jet-propelled wings, to Chicago to work with SCDT. And in 2019, Smith took her company to South Korea.

A return trip to South Korea to collaborate with Kim and his company on a new piece for the festival was scheduled for last spring, when the pandemic put a halt to their plans. In lieu of the cancelled work, a video of a group piece Kim choreographed on his company will be transmitted as part of the festival’s Saturday night gala concert.

Smith describes Kim as “one of the easiest people I’ve worked with.” His work, she says, reflects a blend of contemporary dance, what he refers to as “oriental philosophy,” and the Feldenkrais Method, a somatic practice that emphasizes self-awareness and optimal focus of effort and intention through the unity of body/mind function.

When asked how the collaboration has affected her work, Smith replied, “It allowed me to rely on my body more, trusting where my body is, as opposed to my mind.” Language barriers prevented much verbal exchange between them. “We couldn’t talk together,” she said, but they communicated perfectly through each other’s movement cues. Kim’s improvisational influence has helped Smith to trust her choreographic impulses more, enjoying the spontaneity of “uncovering it as it comes,” instead pre-planning every move prior to rehearsal.

Emphasizing the continuity and influence of dance forms, from historic classical works to modern dance, contemporary, jazz and post-modern, the festival has culled an eclectic roster of companies, dance teachers and panelists to present throughout the five days.

Opening the festival on Nov. 17, a panel discussion led by moderator Douna Coaxum is open to all festival attendees. Panelists include Barbara Shawn Ward of Red Clay Dance Company; revered master teacher, 93-year-old Millie Cruza of Chicago Contemporary Dance Theatre; Crystal Michelle Perkins, professor at Ohio State University and associate director of Dayton Contemporary Dance Company; and Laina Carney, professor of dance at Illinois State University. They will tell their stories and address similarities and differences in their experiences as Black women in dance.

On Wednesday, by registration only, Deeply Rooted Dance Theater’s Joshua Ishmon will talk with youth about the company. Thursday, Heather Cagle will offer a novice-level community jazz class through South Chicago Dance’s Instagram site. A youth concert will take place Friday, presenting South Chicago Dance Youth Training Company, Dyett High School for the Arts Dance Company, Mayfair Academy and Hyde Park School of Dance.

Saturday’s concert will include a Go Fund Me medical emergency collection for dancer William Gill of Joel Hall and Dancers. With the exception of Joseph Kim’s video transmission, the concert will be live-streamed.

South Chicago Dance Theatre will present three works Saturday.  Monique Hayley’s “Soul Power” is set to Maya Angelou’s poem, “On the Pulse of Morning.”  The piece for eight women and two men, originally to be performed in SCDT’s May concert series, cancelled due to COVID-19, is about having strength on the inside and our ability to lift each other up. Perkins’ premiere, “Trans Atlantic Notion,” has a balletic aesthetic but uses a mix of contemporary, modern dance and ballet set to a distinctly African dance pulse. August Tye’s “Danza De La Cerrvatas” (1989) is a ballet work with a contemporary feel for four women, set to the music of Bach and Vivaldi.

Other companies represented on the Saturday night program include Angela Tan’s Yin He Dance; Western Michigan University’s Ebony Vision Dance Ensemble; Banks Performance Project; Ground Rhythm Dance Project; Praise Productions; and Simantikos Dance Chicago.

Tickets and registration for events presented in the South Chicago Dance Festival, Nov. 17-21, range from free-$10. For tickets or more information, click on the event page below.