Grants from the Chicago Dancemakers Forum are designed to free artists from scrounging for funding and creating sacred time to reflect on, develop and deepen their work. When Kevin Iega Jeff went into the studio with a CDF grant, he found himself going back to his origins, tracing his development as a dancer and choreographer through the people that gave context to his world. He traveled to his parents’ respective hometowns in South Carolina, talked with mentors, friends and other dancers, all to better understand how his roots nourished his current life and work.
“For me it was an opportunity to reflect upon the years I’ve been here in Chicago and how people who have helped to make me possible have inspired my life,” Jeff says. “I’ve been here sixteen years and the journey has been great and challenging, uplifting at times and low at times—like anyone’s life you have high periods and low periods—and what anchors you in that are the people who give you an understanding of who you are in creation.”
The result of the research is “I Am Deeply Rooted,” premiering this Thursday for one performance at the Merle Reskin Theatre. Jeff’s passion for community has long been reflected in the name and mission of his company—Deeply Rooted Dance Theater—that he co-founded with Gary Abbott fifteen years ago. Jeff was raised in New York, an Alvin Ailey-trained Julliard grad with a desire to start a company that married African-American storytelling techniques with an extensive and solid technical foundation. Over the past decade and a half, Jeff and Abbott have been building that company in Chicago and watching it mature. And, as with any growing organization, maturity means the entrance of new members and new opinions.
“There’s always a critical point when you pass it on to others and you must trust it, but there will be mistakes,” Jeff says. “And during that period you must stay spiritually focused and stable, and faithful in what you’re looking to create because there will be many that come to you and say that it’s not possible. I think these last three years have proven to be that period for us.” In the coming three years the company will further extend its roots, commissioning work by outside choreographic talent and launching a new interdisciplinary, theatrical series with Community Performance International.
Deeply Rooted has been compared to Alvin Ailey in its blend of African-American narratives and contemporary dance, though Jeff’s focus on nurturing the individuals involved remains at the heart of his work. I ask how his vision for Deeply Rooted has changed with the addition of new voices that now help shape the company. He says, “I think in humanity. I’m more patient.” He pauses.
“To develop a company that says it’s about the growth and development of people, first you have to have a process that honors people, and out of that process the art comes,” Jeff continues. “You can’t say you’re going to do that and make art first. At the end of the day, I think the process offers what I consider to be world-class quality art. But the process of getting to that has to be committed to people. There are times I have to step back and say what’s most important here? You may be in a rehearsal and something might not be going well, and you might be on a deadline, and you might be very concerned about the technical aspect of something happening with the creation of that work. But if there’s an energy in the room that needs to be addressed because people need to reflect, have a conversation and grow, and we need to put the clock away and trust that conversation will get us where we need to go, then I think we’re taking better care of people in the process than being so concerned about the results. I think for me, I have a lot more patience and compassion and better understanding of people and the space they need to grow. And I hope that informs my work in a way that makes me more trusting.”
At the Merle Reskin Theatre, 60 East Balbo, (312)795-9777, June 24 at 7:30pm. $25-55.