It seems like Morgan Frazier must have a secret, not just because she does so many different things so well, but because she makes it all look so easy, as if it's just a matter of being who she is. Whatever her secret is, it probably isn't one of those secrets that you're not supposed to tell, because she speaks so readily about what she's doing and why. "I'm a songwriter," she says, "and I feel like my music is a kind of open book to who I am." Still, it could be one of those secrets that you can't just tell people because you have to show them, something that most people just don't want to believe until they see it for themselves.
If you haven't heard of her yet, Morgan Frazier is one of those talented veterans of Country Music that most people don't know about, even though she's been performing for more than fifteen years. She made her first album eleven years ago, and she has a catalog of carefully crafted original songs that are still largely unknown. None of that is really much of a secret, though, and there's a good reason why so many people don't know about her. She's still only twenty years old, and although she's been performing since she was five and recording since she was nine, her first national release, a beautiful self-titled EP on Curb Records, just came out this year.
There are five songs on the EP, four that she wrote and one, "Love Letters", that she liked so much she just had to record it ("I listened to song after song, and that song just really jumped out at me, it tugs at my heartstrings ..."), and although it might seem like a five song EP could only be a promise of more to come, this is much more than that. Somehow as you listen to those songs again and again, you start to hear who Morgan Frazier is already, and although it's quite a discovery, it's also a bit of a mystery. Even though you know right away that you're listening to some great new music, after a while you get the feeling that you're hearing even more than that.
You're hearing a talented singer, that's for sure; if they put vocal performances on the front of magazines, she'd have verses and choruses on the cover of Vogue. You're hearing a gifted young writer, great players, and great production, but none of that's much of a secret either. It does make you wonder though, the way that all of it gets even richer the more you listen, because you keep getting the feeling that there's something more to who Morgan Frazier really is.
Anyone who knows Lizzie Mackenzie's choreography is probably surprised that she's not better known as a choreographer. She's widely known as a truly exceptional dancer, from her performances with Giordano Dance Chicago and then with River North Dance Chicago, as well as her many guest appearances in high profile special events. She's also well known, especially in the world of preprofessional dance, as the founder and artistic director of Extensions Dance Company, one of the most successful and respected preprofessional dance companies in the country. When she does choreograph, the results are often spectacularly rich; she combines an ability to create beautiful and engaging movement designs with an unusually effective understanding of concert dance architecture.
That's why the news that Lizzie MacKenzie was creating a full evening original work would have been promising no matter what, but to hear that it was going to be for Chicago Dance Crash made the whole idea even more exciting, and much more intriguing. The work is titled ...and sometimes we were lost, but always we became found, and it runs for two weekends, December 6-7 and 13-14 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts in Chicago.
MacKenzie is thoughtful in everything she does, but especially in everything that has anything to do with human connection; it's one of the reasons why she's so successful as a teacher. That same thoughtfulness, that same willingness to consider new ideas and actively engage them until she can work them into all of the other things she does, also gives her an exceptional ability to learn, and to embrace new possibilities. Around the time that Chicago Dance Crash first approached her about working with the Company, she had recently discovered, and was hugely impressed by a lecture by a University of Houston professor named Brené Brown.
Brown's lecture is called "The Power of Vulnerability", and it's quite a phenomenon, besides being an important and thought-provoking presentation. It's part of the TED Talks series, and twelve million people have watched the twenty minute video at the TED site, besides another million or so at YouTube. "Where I started was with connection," Brown says in her talk, "because by the time you're a social worker for ten years, what you realize is that connection is why we're here. It's what gives purpose and meaning to our lives." She goes on to examine the reasons why, despite it's importance, connection to others can be so problematic, and she develops the insightful idea that the people who are best able to share connections with others are those who are least afraid of their own vulnerability.
"There were so many ideas in her talk that really resonated with me that I felt that it was the most potent influence in my life at that moment," MacKenzie says, "so it made sense for me to utilize that as my story line for this conceptual work." Which is where Chicago Dance Crash comes in.
On a warm summer weekend last August, something happened in Cincinnati that you would have to call a remarkable accomplishment; in complete defiance of anything you would ever realistically expect, thirty-five thousand people went to see the Symphony.
The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, with their widely admired new Music Director Louis Langrée conducting, performed outdoors on Saturday and Sunday in one of the city's oldest neighborhoods, while historic Music Hall was illuminated behind them in a dazzling display of synchronized light. It's an astonishing accomplishment for a Symphony Orchestra to attract crowds like a rock concert, but as you learn more about music in Cincinnati, and about the way the city supports its music, you begin to realize that it's more than just a single accomplishment. It's actually a lot of very different accomplishments, by a lot of different people, and an event like the LumenoCity concerts last summer is what happens when all of those people put all of those accomplishments together, somehow sharing an understanding of how to make things turn out right.
Of course, an accomplishment like the success of LumenoCity has to begin with the music, and Louis Langrée brings with him to Cincinnati an understanding of what music can be that is as precise and informed as his conducting. He speaks convincingly about the importance of preparation ("You have to know a piece the way you would know a road that you've driven many, many times, because then you can move more smoothly, more freely; you can really anticipate the curves"), and of thorough technical mastery ("The performance has to include all of the elements of harmony, of rhythm, of melody; everything is important"), but he is also vividly aware of how much more music can be than that. "Even when something is very impressive technically, that's not the beauty and the truth and the depth of music," he says. "It's that it makes you feel different, because it relates directly to you."
Louis Langrée brings a lot of accomplishment with him to Cincinnati; he's traveled the planet conducting many of the world's most respected orchestras and directing many of its most famous operas. When he talks about coming to Cincinnati, though, that's not at all what he talks about. Instead, he talks about the musical heritage of a unique city, and about how it continues to shape the exceptional accomplishments of a great orchestra. "Coming to Cincinnati is a wonderful thing in my life, not only as a musician, but also as a person," he says. "For the past several years I've been touring, going from orchestra to orchestra." Not just from orchestra to orchestra, but from continent to continent; he's conducted on five of them. "It's been very enjoyable, but after a while you have a need to go deeper, the way that you really only can when you can work with the same musicians, to cultivate your own musical language, and your collective musical language. This is a wonderful opportunity for me with this magnificent orchestra."
When you think of the art of dance, what you're likely to think of depends on who you are; the way that dancers and even choreographers are likely to see the art of dance can be quite a bit different from what their audience sees. Most of the time when a dancer or choreographer thinks of the art of dance, they think of performance, perhaps of movement design; their idea of the art will often be very much centered around their own experience. The audience has a better view, though, because as profoundly artistic as movement and performance can be, the art of dance is richer, more involved, and much more complex than that. There's a lot more than just movement on stage; there are costumes and makeup, lighting design and sound, sometimes even original music. There are artists backstage running light boards and mixing consoles, others taking care of the front of house, and still others who's art is publicity or administration.
It brings up an important question about art, and although Heather Trommer-Beardslee never actually asks that question in her new book Dance Production and Management, she answers it thoroughly; the book is both a step-by-step guide for anyone who wants to make art in dance successfully, and a richly insightful study of the art itself. The question she answers, but doesn't ask, is this: is the art of dance what you create, or is it what you share? Is art what you experience when you make it, or is it what you and others, other artists, and especially your audience, experience together? Whatever the answer may be for an individual artist, there can only be one answer for an audience, because an audience can only experience what artists share with them.
There's a lot of different kinds of music in this big wide world, so many different kinds of music that nobody could even name them all. Everybody could name a few though, and two kinds of music that almost everybody can name are Rock and Country. Each of them is its own wide world, and although they do share some history, they don't share a lot of artists, or a lot of audiences.
There's plenty of music in America, and a lot of it's out on the road, rolling down interstates, sea to shining sea. The tour buses carrying Rock acts look a lot like the ones carrying Country acts, but even if they do pass each other on the interstate, they'll always be in two very different worlds. It's true that Rock and Country have a few things in common, and the more acoustic, lyrical kinds of Rock aren't all that different from some Country music. Still, the louder and heavier Rock gets, the less it sounds anything like the handcrafted story songs from a Nashville session, where most of the guitars are played undistorted, and the pedal steel might answer every careful line of a clear, melodic vocal.
That makes Aaron Lewis a very unusual story, because after sixteen years in a band called Staind (who've sold fifteen million very heavy rock albums), he recorded five country songs and put them together on an independent country EP. It had a picture on the cover of a sign by the side of the road that said "Entering Nashville", and he called it Town Line. If that doesn't sound all that astonishing, it's because that's not the really unusual part. When Town Line was released in March, 2011 it became the No. 1 Country album, and that's not only way past unusual, it may be unprecedented.
Last November, Aaron Lewis followed up Town Line with his first full length Country album, The Road. He has a studio full of vintage gear in a barn on his property (Staind recorded their last two albums there), but to make The Road he worked with one of Nashville's most respected producers, James Stroud. He made the album one afternoon session at a time, flying into Nashville from wherever the Staind tour left him with a day off, and flying back out the same night to pick up the tour again.
Creativity is an enchanting word; in the arts you could even say that it's a glamorous word. With its dreamlike promise of uncompromised originality, it conjures an alluring collage of romantic images, images that depict the drama of an individual's struggle to discover, and then construct from nothingness, something that has never been real before.
That's the movie version; in real life, real creativity is a lot more complicated than that. It's not less enchanting, not even less glamorous, but it's certainly a lot more complicated. Most of the time, creativity is more collaborative than it is individual and, to the gaping horror of working critics everywhere, true creativity is usually at least as derivative as it is original. Inspiration and creativity are so elusively interwoven that the most compelling and important new art is always a collaboration, perhaps unrecognized, with whatever past accomplishment made the present what it is. It's certainly that way in the art of dance, and especially in contemporary dance, because it's difficult to imagine how different the present might be if it had never been shaped by the creative accomplishments of Martha Graham.
On Friday, September 27th and Saturday September 28th, two of the modern dance community's really creative artistic directors, Lizzie Leopold of The Leopold Group and Winifred Haun of Winifred Haun & Dancers, will present a multifaceted study of the complex process of creativity, although that's not really the way they would describe it. They've constructed an evening of dance entitled Vision, Faith & Desire: Dancemakers Inspired by Martha Graham, with works by five choreographers who each present an original and individual vision that, like so much of contemporary movement design, inevitably either reflects or resonates something of Martha Graham's ideas about dance.
Although many Dance Companies now present a program at some point in their year that features choreography by the members of the Company, very few have done so for as long, and perhaps none do so with as much commitment and creativity as Thodos Dance Chicago. Thodos Dance's New Dances Choreography Series, described by Time Out Chicago dance writer Matt de la Peña as "one of the best in-house choreographic showcases", is in its thirteenth season, and on Friday and Saturday, July 19-20 at 7:30 PM, and again on Sunday July 21 at 5:00 PM, the series will feature nine new works in performances at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts in Chicago.
There are quite a few reasons why these programs are so uniquely effective. One of them is that Thodos Dance company members are hired as choreographers, not just as dancers. Because of Melissa Thodos' emphasis on the development of company members as choreographers, Thodos company members have the opportunity, and the experience, to put together a consistently eclectic and successful program, but that same emphasis on choreography among the dancers has another significant effect. New Dances is a uniquely collaborative phenomenon.
"I think the fact that everyone is friends changes the dynamic," Carrie Patterson observes. Patterson and Alissa Tollefson are premiering a new work entitled "Relativity", a dynamic showcase for five dancers, two of whom (John Cartwright and Kyle Hadenfeldt) are premiering works of their own at New Dances. "It's not like going into an environment where you don't ..." Patterson continues, and in a moment emblematic of the easy collaborative ethic of New Dances, Cartwright finishes her sentence: "Where you don't know anyone. It definitely is nice that we all come from the same Company," Cartwright continues, "and even though in this project, we do have an audition that's open to the the Chicago dance community, I think that in Chicago the dance community as a whole is very together and collective, so it still seems very much like the same community."
Chicago Repertory Ballet's Spring / Summer Performance is exactly the kind of concert that Artistic Director Wade Schaaf was talking about, right after founding the new Chicago based Company in 2012, when he described what the Company intended to do. Schaaf told aotpr.com that the Company's concerts would combine the individual voices of talented independent choreographers (that's the Repertory part) with a new approach to storytelling in dance (that's the Ballet part). Their Spring / Summer Performance at the Vittum Theater in Chicago will feature the Premiere of Schaaf's own one-act work The Rites of Spring, a re-imagined interpretation of Stravinsky's famous score on its one-hundredth anniversary, along with four works by a group of inventive independent choreographers: Jacqueline Stewart, Jessica Miller Tomlinson, Monique Haley and French choreographer Manuel Vignoulle.
Vignoulle has been based in New York since 2009, which is when he left a successful performance career in Europe to join Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, and his work as an independent choreographer has been centered there since moving on from Cedar Lake in 2011 to focus on his rapidly expanding work as a choreographer. His background gives him a large palette of artistic approaches to blend from, having worked both in the introspective, conceptual world of European modernism and in what in some ways can seem the very different contemporary dance culture of North America.
Pascal Rioult is a choreographer, but he constructs his works from materials that very few others know how to find. Like an artisan with his own secret resources, he's the maker of a rich and complex cloth; he weaves moments in time from threads of imagination and makes them into Dances.
He's the Artistic Director of RIOULT Dance NY, the Company that he founded in 1994 after a successful career as a principal with the Martha Graham Dance Company. He's been making dances for years, complex, captivating, intensely musical works, quite often set to full symphonic scores that few contemporary choreographers would venture to explore. Rioult doesn't hesitate to do so, because he has an ability to balance the innate orchestral power of such music with an equally powerful sense of precision and innovation, and he sees no reason to stop there.
On Tuesday, June 4th he'll premiere his latest work, Iphigenia, when RIOULT Dance NY opens their New York Season. In eight performances that run through Sunday, June 9th, audiences at The Joyce Theater will have the chance to see his most recent alchemy unfold, a collaboration with composer Michael Torke, along with three other critically acclaimed works, On Distant Shores, Prelude to Night, and Bolero. The premiere of a new work by an imaginative choreographer, set to a new composition by an equally respected composer would be news enough, but in this case, where it all comes from is an even more singular story.
Chicago Dance Crash is so accustomed to doing something new that even when they do something for the first time, it's like they've done it a lot already. It's a unique talent for an entire Dance Company to have, but the performers and staff who make up Dance Crash all seem to have a set of abilities --- audacity, imagination, and multi-disciplinary performance skills --- that make it possible for them to keep doing new things well.
Beginning Saturday, May 25 (there's no Friday performance the opening weekend because Dance Crash is on tour) and running for three weeks, Dance Crash is presenting their new full evening work The Cotton Mouth Club, choreographed by Crash's multi-talented Artistic Director Jessica Deahr and Robert McKee, who also performs the male lead in the work. Jessica Deahr tells aotpr.com's Johnny Nevin about how all of that creativity comes together when Crash converts Chicago's famous Biograph Theater (now The Victory Gardens Biograph Theater because it's part of the award winning Theater Company) into The Cotton Mouth Club.