Frank Chaves, artistic director of River North Dance Chicago, steps down this December after twenty-three years leading the contemporary jazz company. In 2005 Chaves was diagnosed with syringomyelia, a degenerative spinal cord condition. Over the last two years he has choreographed from a wheelchair, despite the restriction, creating some of his most compelling and emotional work. River North’s farewell performance to Chaves—the only Chicago performance this year—takes place at the Auditorium Theatre on October 3; the program includes company favorites by Sherry Zunker, Ginger Farley, Kevin Iega Jeff, Randy Duncan, Robert Battle and signature pieces by Chaves, including “Temporal Trance,” a reflection on death and mourning created at the time his mother passed away, and “Habaneras,” a bright showpiece dedicated to the music of Chaves’ native Cuba. In a phone conversation, Chaves spoke about the program and what’s next for himself and River North.
Why have you chosen retirement in your twenty-third year at River North?
Really, I was feeling fulfilled and content at twenty years. But then I created some of my favorite works in my last three years with the company, when I was kind of the most handicapped: “Eva” and “Havana Blue.” I was on a walker when I made those. The all-men’s piece from last fall was completely created from the chair and it’s one of my favorites ever. I want to continue to choreograph, if it’s for River North or elsewhere. I find the challenge intriguing. But of course it’s bittersweet; twenty-three years is a lot. Thirty-six years if you count all the years I’ve been dancing.
And you’ve been there practically from the start.
Yes, I say that I wasn’t there on day one. I was there on day two. It was founded in 1989, Sherry Zunker became artistic director the next year and I joined as co-director in ’93.
What is next for River North? What do you hope for the future of the company?
It’s tough when an identity of a company has been tied to one person for so long. The board needs to be intrigued by somebody. Do I hope we grow and build on the existing River North, as opposed to taking a turn? I hope that doesn’t happen. The kind of dancing River North does, it made everybody fall in love with it in the first place—we do such emotive and relatable pieces. I feel like jazz companies are a dying breed; Giordano is one of the last pure jazz companies left around. I hope it doesn’t go away completely. I don’t see this kind of dancing from visiting companies, I don’t see it very much here. I hope the atmosphere and livelihood around River North which affects people on an emotional level remains. I’m so happy to go out on this note. It’s been an amazing ride for me. (Sharon Hoyer)
At the Auditorium Theatre, 50 East Congress, (312)341-2300. Saturday, October 3 at 7:30pm. $28-$68.