CONVERSATIONS with Ed Tracy

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2017 JEFF AWARDS - A LETTER FROM RON KEATON

Our Conversation this week comes in the form of a letter from Ron Keaton. Ron agreed to step in when business called me out of town. It was a chance for Ron to give his unique point of view on a big night of recognition for Chicago's professional theatre community and share comments from award recipients in many of the categories. 

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ASHLEY WHEATER: DREAMING BIG AT JOFFREY BALLET

The excitement you feel these days in Joffrey Tower is kinetic energy. It has been steadily pulsing for ten years, since the company moved into their new home, under the artistic direction of Ashley Wheater, who took over the role held only by Robert Joffrey and co-founder Gerald Arpino before him. If that was a pivotal moment in the evolving story of the Joffrey Ballet – a seismic shift of sorts that rumbled across the performing arts world - then the announcement a few weeks ago that the Joffrey Ballet was forming a partnership with Lyric Opera was a bolt of lightning.

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ASHLEY WHEATER: GLOBAL VISIONARIES AT JOFFREY BALLET

For a moment, Ashley Wheater pauses to reflect on the journey that he has been on with the Joffrey Ballet for nearly 10 years.

It’s a short rehearsal break on April 19th during a very busy week, and yet he is thoughtful, generous and speaks passionately on a wide range of topics during our conversation. He calls the excitement generated by the superb debut of Christopher Wheeldon's Nutcracker last fall “incredibly gratifying.” However, his pride shines vividly through in acknowledging that the Joffrey dancers have had so many amazingly creative experiences this season. Like every arts organization, the Joffrey keeps evolving. “Art," says Wheater, “never stands still, and we keep moving forward.”

Things have been moving forward rapidly for the Joffrey Ballet when you consider the new take on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet presented here last fall and in New York a few weeks ago, Wheeldon’s Nutcracker, the innovative Game Changers, and now, Global Visionaries, opening April 26th for a 10 performance run through May 7th at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University.

In our conversation, Wheater provides unique insight into the production development process, the world-renowned choreographers approach to the material and what’s ahead for the Chicago-based company that is raising the bar in the world of dance.

On the Miraculous Mandarin and choreographer Yuri Possokhov …
Béla Bartók’s score was specifically written for dance. It is quite a dangerously, dark tale ... Yuri has this deep, theatrical flare to his choreography. He grew up in the Bolshoi. He was a principal dancer there, a magnificent artist. He has shown us a very different way of using movement to tell narrative story. It is incredibly gripping.”

Unique staging …
“When we did the collaboration with Cleveland, we did it at Severence Hall … the orchestra and the company on stage together … the logistics of how much space we could find within the confines of an enormous orchestra. The impact was monumental. We have brought it to Chicago at the Auditorium Theatre … We have the fantastic Chicago Philharmonic conducted by Scott Speck … We have raised the pit and built the floor out into the auditorium … The audience will feel like they are really close, both to the music and the action of the dance.”

Developing Episode 47 and Alexander Ekman ...
“Alex wanted to come in and workshop with the company and see what would come out of that dialogue, between Alex and the company. And it really is the entire company. He has them doing a lot of improv … He asked the dancers what it is about their work, their career and what they do every day that brings them joy. And so they are all open to their own interpretation of what is joy in their work. … The one thing about Alex’s work is that he is deadly serious about how it is executed. … His timing is incredible.”

Mammatus and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa ...
“We presented Mammatus (“Formation of Clouds”) in 2015 and it was part of a non-subscription program, so we only had a handful of performances. Coming back to it, we’re able to dig deeper, the company understands it better. … Annabelle, like Alex and Yuri, is a fearless choreographer with very clear ideas. … She started working with the company, took this huge group of people, and made it really evolve and gave stunning parts to everyone in it. … You can look at it as this incredible flood of blackbirds. There is aggression to it, but there is also an incredible beauty to it … All of this amazing push, and then, at the end of the work, two people seem to float within the clouds.”

Understanding multiple layers…
“Our dancers want to understand the work at all the multiple layers. If we are going to do these works, we have to understand them … both in their choreographic language and also in their musical language. All too often we leave the musical phrasing out of things, which I do not agree with. … Whether it's this contemporary program we are doing ... whether it's opening our season next year with Giselle, one of the greatest romantic ballets of all time … whether it’s George Balenchine's Four Temprements, or Jerome Robbins|Philip Glass work Glass Pieces, there is so much in the repertory for the company. What I have found is that every single year they raise the bar because I raise the bar, and I think collectively, we really love the work we are doing here.” 

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GLOBAL VISIONARIES TICKETS

The Miraculous Mandarin (Chicago Premiere)
Choreographed by Yuri Possokhov
In collaboration with The Cleveland Orchestra, San Francisco Ballet Resident Choreographer Yuri Possokhov has created a new work specifically for The Joffrey Ballet: The Miraculous Mandarin, a magnificent tale of a girl forced to act as a decoy by thugs, luring a wealthy mandarin to his tragic fate. Set to Béla Bartók’s 1926 score, Possokhov reimagines this story ballet for seven dancers to explore the tragic, dark passions between men and women.

Episode 47 (World Premiere)
Choreographed by Alexander Ekman
Brimming with Alexander Ekman’s trademark originality and humor, Episode 47 explores the feeling of joy through dance to serve as a remedy to our uncertain times. Incorporating movements based on improvisation, Ekman sets this large ensemble work to a modern mix of music including the Grammy-nominated Brad Mehldau Trio’s bluesy Since I Fell for You; Django Django’s psychedelic dance hit, First Light, Tiga’s pop hit Shoes and Moby’s LA5.

Alexander Ekman once again brings his unique vision to the Joffrey with the world premiere of Episode 47, April 26 - May 7 at Auditorium Theatre. More Video | Big Foot Media.

Mammatus
Choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa
This powerful, abstract piece features 20 dancers in a series of ensembles and duets set to contemporary composer Michael Gordon’s Weather One. A minimalist stage, equipped with tree branches lit with LED lights, sets the scene while dancers represent surreal insects and birds through organic movements to explore the nonlinear essence of nature and turbulent cloud formations.

Musical Director Scott Speck and Chicago Philharmonic
Images and profiles courtesy of Joffrey Ballet and The Silverman Group, Inc.


The Joffrey Ballet’s Global Visionaries opens Wednesday, April 26th for 10 performances through May 7th at the Auditorium Theater of Roosevelt University, 50 East Congress Parkway. For the full schedule or to order tickets, call 312.386.8905 or visit Joffrey.org.

CAVALIA ODYSSEO

Making its 2017 Midwest debut on April 1st, ODYSSEO brings 65 majestic horses and a football field sized village to Chicago in what has been billed as the largest touring show on earth. As you enter the enormous production complex, you realize that at its heart, ODYSSEO is a unique experience between horse and handler and all of the mechanics that surround this production serve only to enhance the intimate relationship.

On March 27th, we had the pleasure of visiting Cavalia village to speak with the production team, artists and trainers involved in mounting the 2017 version of the show founded in 2003 by Normand Latourelle. An earlier version played here in 2009, but it has grown many times in size, scope and complexity since then. 

For starters, there are nine different breeds of horses from seven countries that perform in free riding displays throughout. The four-legged stars of ODYSSEO were flown in on a 747 and then spent a leisurely two-week break at a local farm in Bristol, Wisconsin to recharge and relax before the run with matinee and evening performances through April 23rd under the white big top. Back at Soldier Field, the crew has worked for 17 days to mount the dazzling series of tents and staging that is transported in 110 semi trucks.

In this week's CONVERSATION, we spoke with Resident Artistic Director Darren Charles about the overall vision of ODYSSEO. It was a bit of a surprise to learn that Sam Alvarez, an electrical engineer, and Elise Verdoncq, an aspiring attorney, had both changed course in their careers and have been with the the show since its inception. Alvarez, an aerialist, performer and coach for the high-flying routines, took us through a few of the show's highlights. Verdoncq told us that after busy days in training, it all comes together for her as a featured performer in Liberty, a unique program element where horses respond only to her voice, body and hand movements.

With over 150 crew members, 50 performing artists, riders, aerialists, acrobats, stilt walkers, dancers and musicians, an enormous hydraulic carousel, 10,000 tons of stone, earth and sand … and horses, everywhere, Cavalia Odysseo is sure to please and not to be missed.

Rider Steven Paulson on the premise of the show … 

“Liberty meaning freedom in French is the premise of our show … Horses at freedom … no bridle, no saddle … Following us based on cues of body language ... It is all about the bond between horse and rider.”

Darren Charles, Resident Artistic Director and Choreographer, on the epic scale of this production …

“We are back with the largest touring show in the world. We have 150 resident employees, 65 horses and 50 artists … aerialists, ground based acrobats, video, equestrians … amazing lighting … It is almost like you are watching a movie rather than watching a show … Something no one has ever seen before.”

Sam Alvarez, Aerialist and Coach, on his change in careers …

“I have been with the show since its beginning … I started as a gymnast, diver, dancer as a kid but I was not looking to be in any circus. I was studying to be a computer electrical engineer … and there was a chance occurrence … I happened to audition for circus … I decided my body is only going to be good at this for so long so why not. I have been in it for over 20 years now I would say.”

Featured artist, rider and trainer Elise Verdoncq on her relationship with the horses …  

“There are horses that will be more sensitive about the way I move and talk. I would say to have a horse completely ready [for the show ] would take a year. If you just train one horse it will take less time but in this number all the horses need to learn their place and that is the longest process … I really enjoy spending my day with my horses. You learn every day with them.”


PODCAST

ODYSSEO by CAVALIA
Soldier Field South Lot
1410 Museum Campus Drive, Chicago
(Entrance at parking gates on East 18th Drive)
TICKETS|WEBSITE 
CALL: 866.999.8111

NOW EXTENDED THROUGH JUNE 3, 2017

THE NICHOLAS BROTHERS "TAKE WINGS" AT BLACK ENSEMBLE THEATER

You probably know what “Break a Leg!” means to an actor, but what do you say to a dancer? If you are Rueben D. Echoles and Rashawn Thompson, who are portraying the legendary Nicholas Brothers on stage in Chicago next month, it’s “Take Wings!”.

They are headlining the highly-anticipated opening production of Jackie Taylor's Black Ensemble Theater’s 41st Season with My Brothers Keeper - The Story of The Nicholas Brothers. Written, directed, choreographed and starring Echoles as the younger Harold Nicholas with Thompson as Fayard Nicholas, the production has BE’s cultural center jump jivin’ night and day with a cast of 16 and the Black Ensemble Orchestra under the direction of Robert Reddrick.

They have been called the greatest tap dancers who ever lived and the most beloved dance team in the history of entertainment. Born seven years apart into a performing family, the brothers had front row seats to the talents of the great black Vaudeville acts of the day. A ground-breaking appearance at the Cotton Club in 1932, when the brothers were only teenagers, led to Hollywood a few years later and then to Broadway in the 1936 Ziegfield Follies. They would go on to headline in venues all over the world, in films and on television for over six decades.

During a break from rehearsals, we joined Rueben Echoles and Rashawn Thompson to talk about the creation and development of the show and what it is like to fill the shoes of these legendary entertainers.

Reuben on advancing the Black Ensemble Theater’s mission …
"We will eradicate racism by letting us all know that we have common things that bring us together, music is one of those things … And we are celebrating the greatness of who we are. When we are proud of who we are, other people can look at us and say the same and respect who we are.”

Reuben on the Nicholas Brothers dance style …
“In terms of choreography no one can duplicate what the Nicholas Brothers did. So, what I do is I watch carefully and then I use accents of the things that will remind people of the videos. We do a lot of tricks that they did but not as many. If they jump down ten stairs, we will jump down four because no one has been able to duplicate what they have done since then. And I just don’t think I want to risk it.”

Rashawn on the importance of the Black Ensemble Theater’s Education Program …
"I had a tough life growing up. When I came to the theatre it gave me a chance to speak my mind. It gave me a chance to talk and be heard because I felt I was not heard a lot as a child. In the theater, I was able to be as big as I want to be and everybody’s listening … I know that with me being a mentor … there’s a lot of kids like me … how I was … and I see it and pay attention to them. I understand how to work them through it … try to make it a little easier than it was for me.”

“Break a Leg!” or ...
Reuben: “We say “Take Wings!” because we literally need to fly on that stage.”
 

TICKETS AND INFORMATION HERE 
LISTEN TO THE PODCAST

ERICA LYNETTE EDWARDS AND THE JOFFREY BALLET: INSPIRING STUDENTS THROUGH DANCE

On December 10th, the Joffrey Ballet opens a new version of The Nutcracker at the Auditorium Theatre. The highly-anticipated production, commissioned by the ballet company and penned by Brian Selznick, is under the direction of Tony Award winning choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon
 
In Chicago and across the nation, The Nutcracker’s large cast provides a place for emerging dancers at every level. Considering that the Joffrey’s ambitious community engagement program headed by longtime company member and ballerina, Erica Lynette Edwards starts out with four-year-olds, it is no wonder that there is lots of excitement about Wheeldon's world premiere production, set in Chicago just before the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893. 
 
Erica joined the conversation on Nov. 8 to talk about the Joffrey Ballet’s outreach program, how influential dance can be on young people’s lives and how to keep grounded when you are always on your toes.  

Listen to podcast HERE

Erica on the importance of community outreach ... 
“Some communities are not familiar with our work, and they hear the word ballet and are turned off a little bit … We are proud that we do not just bring ballet to our schools. We bring multiple dance styles, and students are surprised once we start moving that even though they are learning ballet, they are also learning emotional skills, building self-confidence, they are disciplined … We are looking to excite them by giving them a chance to dance and also enriching their lives by showing them something new that they might not have experienced before.”  
 
The importance of thinking ahead as a dancer …
“A challenge for dancers is 'what are you going to do next' … If you do not become a professional dancer a lot of people are like ‘what do I do now?’ And even people who are professional dancers, when you are done you are like ‘what do I do now?’… Don’t become a ‘bun head.’ I would say you have to figure out what other things you enjoy ... where do your passions lie and continue to do that at the same time you are dancing … I think it is important to think toward the future because when you are young and living your dream you don’t think of much else.”

Her inspiration …
“I was four when I saw the Nutcracker for the first time … My mother said I loved the show so much that she put me in dance classes … Just by seeing the Nutcracker I was excited and wanted to partake in ballet, and we are trying to ignite that same flame in our students starting at kindergarten.”
 
What does the future look like …
“… We are excited to look forward and see how many kids we can impact with our programming because we have already seen such beautiful change from the students we work with right now.”

Purchase Nutcracker Tickets HERE
More on the Joffrey Ballet HERE

CRAZY FOR CROWLE - A CONVERSATION WITH MATT CROWLE

Matt Crowle, the multi-talented, award-winning veteran of musical theatre in Chicago for the past decade, has a backstory worthy of a Broadway musical all its own. Born and raised in Marshall, Michigan, where he discovered his love for ballet, tap, theatre and comedy at a very early age, Crowle eventually followed a calling to New York City, grinding through years of auditions, dance and voice classes and part-time jobs to make ends meet.  His first real break would come as a member of the touring company of Dr. Dolittle and stage time with Tommy Tune. And then came the Broadway megahit, Spamalot.

These stories are just part of the fascinating conversation we had on September 27th with Matt Crowle, the six-time Jefferson award nominated actor, choreographer and dance instructor. In a wide-ranging discussion, Crowle talks about who helped to shape his performance philosophy, recognizing talent, the importance of training, and, working with one of his best friends, Bill Larkin.

Matt Crowle received the 2015 Jeff Award for his performance as Hysterium in Porchlight Music Theatre’s production of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum and is nominated twice in 2016 -- for his tour-de-force performance as Leo Bloom in Mercury Theater’s The Producers, and, for his choreography in the Drury Lane Theatre production of White Christmas

NEXT UP: Matt Crowle is merging all of his formidable talents and vast stage experience as director and choreographer of Drury Lane Theatre’s upcoming production of Crazy For You, running November 3rd though January 8th.

Matt Crowle on his New York miracle and unforgettable Spamalot audition:
"I was working at Ellen’s Stardust Diner and I got a call from Tara Rubin Casting saying we’d love for you to come in next week for Spamalot …  and to be honest, it was an eye-rolling moment because I thought 'you’ve seen me… there’s nothing left to do.' I talked to my mom and said ‘I don’t think I’m going to go. I have a shift that night.’ My mom said ‘So, you’re going to sling burgers around when you can audition for a Broadway show !?!’" 
 
"I almost didn’t make it … I was trapped on the N train, ran upstairs grabbed a cab and said ‘I will give you 50 dollars if you can get me to Chelsea faster than you should legally’ ... and he did …  I think I was the first to go, did the first song, went well, did the first of two scenes, went well, and that was when my mentor Bruce kicked me in the back of the head and said ‘you’re not done yet.’ ... So I launched into the second one and the associate director at the time, Peter Lawrence, leaned in after I finished and said ‘I am very, very glad you did that.’ … So that was at about 11 … and at about 11:15, I had a phone call that said if you want to join the Broadway company Spamalot,  you start in two days …  So I went in there, quit my job at the restaurant, and there you have it.”

About physical comedy and streamlining simplicity:
"I had a knack at a very young age for falling down really well. I was doing prat falls for a very long time. My parents got a video camera … one day, when I played hooky from school all I did for the whole day was fall off from furniture or jump off of things and fall and then I’d go back and watch it in slow motion to see if it was believable enough."
 
"My mom found the tape. She was like ‘What were you thinking?!?!’ It was just before the night I had an opening in a show in high school. ‘And what if you had broken your arm !?!’ [I said] ‘I’m not going to break my arm. I know exactly what I’m doing. I’m a pro!’ … and she just rolled her eyes and said ‘Well, it’s your problem.’ 

“I think the first real exposure to physical comedy for me would have been Steve Martin. My mom and dad loved Steve Martin, listened to his stand up albums, watched RoxanneThe Jerk and, of course, Three Amigos. So much of my generation is about vulgar humor… But I thought clever always spoke to me. Clever and simple because it’s not easy. It’s not easy to weed out all the stuff you don’t need just to find that nugget, that gold nugget of truth and streamline simplicity … And then I was turned on to Keaton and Chaplin and went back over and over again saying, ‘What is it that makes it so perfect'"

Working with Bill Larkin 
"That rehearsal process [for Producers] was incredible because we had so much already from day one … Bill, as brilliant as he is, can be a bit awkward physically and he embraces this … There was a day when the director was trying to get him to lean on a wall a certain way. I felt like I was watching a Steve Martin or Buster Keaton comedy bit where he seriously didn’t know how to lean on the wall ... We had to take a break I was weeping … He’s such a natural, beautiful comedian … I adore him … He’s one of my dearest friends.”

The importance of training: 
“I try to impress upon my students and colleagues that you are never done training … In New York, everyone is always in class … always in voice lessons… always training … I didn’t notice that here so I’ve really tried to change that approach … All you have is your reputation and if you rely on that as opposed to committing to push forward with it you lose, and we all lose … Any time I talk to young performers I say ‘Be the best you can. Then get better.’”

Matt Crowle Website
Peninsula Players Theatre - Peter and the Starcatcher July 2 - 23, 2017

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