BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
“Once dancers develop their technical tools, then they can begin to speak from the heart. In the intimate space of dance, they can reveal who they are. They should not over-rehearse. We want to see the imperfect, which is perfection,” shares Deeply Rooted Dance Theater’s Co-Founder/Creative Director, Kevin Iega Jeff.
On Saturday, October 17, Deeply Rooted Dance Theater (DRDT) will celebrate its 25th anniversary season by presenting an in-person and virtual event at the Athenaeum Theatre. Contemporary dance as story telling, uniting modern, classical, American and African-American traditions, motivates the company.
Due to COVID, our conversation was over the phone, rather than following a performance. Even still, I got a sense of the transformational power of Iega’s storytelling, which began when he formed his first dance company at 21. During our talk, he was able through his words to convey what dancers most often share through movement: “Can’t you frequently tell when a person walks into the room if they have energy and authenticity?” Iega asks. “With dance you can soon see who is less authentic, who is just phoning it in. The art of dance is to understand and manage the energy of the performance and draw in the audience.”
A graduate of New York City’s School of the Performing Arts (captured in the musical Fame) and Juilliard, Iega founded his company JUBILATION! in New York. For ten years the company toured nationally and internationally, sharing the stories, histories, and art of African American people as well as his unique approach to contemporary dance. While continuing to perform as a dancer, it was at JUBILATION! that Iega began his lifelong pursuit of both choreographing new work and directing a company that would train a new generation of dancers and choreographers. In 1994 he left New York to become Artistic Director of the Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theater.
How does one learn to be a choreographer? “I learned by watching other choreographers whose work I admire,” he says. “They are master choreographers and teachers who helped me acquire the technical knowledge and spiritual inspiration to develop my own creative purpose and voice. In language, we learn technical skills for application, meaning grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, etc. But technique without aesthetic perspective or something to say means nothing. That’s where gift meets skill, and it’s the choreographer’s charge to define and give process to their unique voice.”
He says as a younger choreographer he would practice his creations in his own body, but with age comes changes in the body and more restrictions: “I express more now through imagery, as I share vision for movement with the dancers. I still enjoy challenging my body to move, but I equally enjoy the collaboration of ideas that happens when vision is shared and movement is discovered through interpretation.”
Although he primarily creates for Deeply Rooted, which he co-founded in 1995, he conceives new works for the Alvin Ailey Dance Ensemble as well as other companies in Chicago and other cities across the country like Dallas and Cleveland. His work has also been featured in several films, including Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It, as well as in Broadway shows including The Wiz and CominUpTown. Iega was named one of the Juilliard School’s 100 Outstanding Alumni in celebration of the school’s centenary anniversary.
“Dancers can pull back layers and work through gestures,” Iega explains. “For our performance October 17, we will use narration by Charlie Chaplin, who was a master of the gesture in silent movies, when we present When Men, which was choreographed by Joshua L. Ishmon in 2016.”
Among the DRDT works that will be performed live will be My Country Tis of Thee, which Iega choreographed with music by Mahalia Jackson. A maximum of 50 people may purchase premium tickets to attend the fundraiser in person. “We have very strict rules about who can be on stage at any one time and everyone must be backstage when they are not dancing,” he says. “Audience members, staff, and performers will wear masks at all times, and seating will provide at least six feet of distance between audience members. Sanitation protocols are in place.”
In addition to Iega and Ishmon, other choreographers for the evening include Nicole Clarke-Springer, who presents a portion of her work in progress, Rain, and Gary Abbott, who co-choreographed Heaven with Iega.
Between the performances, in-person and virtual audiences will view videos featuring comments from the Artistic Team including Iega, Artistic Director Nicole Clarke-Springer, Co-Founder/Associate Artistic Director Gary Abbott, Dance Education Director Tracey Franklin, and Rehearsal Director Joshua L. Ishmon, along with longtime company member Dominique Atwood.
To further celebrate the company’s 25th anniversary, a cinematic history of DRDT, including video highlights of company performances and interviews that illuminate the company’s founding and inspiration, its evolution, and its plans for the future under new artistic leadership will be shown.
Iega describes his lasting loyalty to DRDT: “It’s an important time to celebrate all who have supported the company and made 25 years possible. We dance, supported by skilled and dedicated board members, staff, consultants, and volunteers. Funders and individual donors are also essential, and together we’re growing an organization into a Chicago institution. That’s our vision for the next 25 years. To continue growing Deeply Rooted into an institution that champions Chicago’s Black creative voices and our human diversity.”
Virtual general admission is $25. All premium ticket buyers, in person (beginning at $250) and virtual ($150), are invited to the post-performance Continuum, a dialogue with the Artistic Team. In-person premium tickets at higher levels ($500 and $1,000) also include preferred seating at DRDT’s spring 2021 performance. Tickets are available at deeplyrooteddancetheater.org.