By Sharon Hoyer
There are places we think of as being of the past, regardless of their continued existence and evolution. When we talk about a thing being of a bygone era, we almost invariably do so with affection—nostalgic places feel comforting, stable: safe harbors in tumultuous times.
Roller rinks are a good example. Be it a fixture from your youth, your regular Saturday night ritual or a cultural touchpoint you’ve only seen on screen, the roller rink is one of those special little universes with its own set of social codes, its own sense of style, its own music—all the necessary ingredients for building a vibrant culture. Roller skating is a culture that thrives, albeit threatened, in African-American communities in Chicago and cities around the country. (See Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown’s excellent 2019 HBO documentary, “United Skates”). Yet there’s something about the roller rink that resonates with the disco era, which made space for ecstatic expressions of blackness and queerness. Add in the rink as a family-friendly, all-ages venue and you have nostalgia of a refreshingly inclusive, nurturing flavor.
The 1970s-era roller rink is also the petri dish Julia Rhoads, founder and artistic director of Lucky Plush Productions, selected for examining the nuances of human interaction and interdependence. “Rink Life” is an evening-length dance theater performance featuring Lucky Plush’s signature blend of dance, conversational dialogue, storytelling and live music. “Rink Life” is distinct from prior Plush productions, though, by its emphasis on live music. First inspired by “Cadence,” a piece commissioned from Rhoads by Hubbard Street Dance in 2017, “Rink Life” is derived foremost from playful vocalizations. “I typically make long-form work and working with Hubbard was different—shorter work, tight processes,” Rhoads says. “I wanted to use the voice because Lucky Plush uses storytelling and casual dialogue. I didn’t know the Hubbard Street dancers’ comfort with this, so we started with humming. Then I thought what if the score is driven by the voice? I wound up loving the quality of it—the three-part harmony, the breath and challenge of singing while doing challenging physical movement. I wanted to dig more into that and give it a more narrative context with Lucky Plush.”
The Lucky Plush company members are formidable triple threats one and all, but the vocal demands on top of choreography in “Rink Life” presented a challenge to the performers. The company worked with vocal coach Bethany Clearfield on techniques for managing rigorous vocal and physical work simultaneously. “It’s been amazing to see how good they’ve gotten at the voice work,” Rhoads says. “I build work around the people in the room and I want to foreground them on the stage. It really was hard in the beginning. They still get fatigued in parts where they have to move through technical choreography and maintain notes. We’re also going to do some Alexander technique which will I hope will help them come up with more strategies. I’m not a musical theater person, but I’m fascinated by the collision of vocabularies and how they work together. It could be two people having an awkward moment and someone begins humming and the other person joins in, and it can feel oddly familiar.”
Pop tunes of the seventies further ground the feeling of familiarity in “Rink Life.” At one moment, performers humming through solfeggio are inspired to break out into a harmonized a cappella rendition of “Stayin’ Alive.” Moments like these are generated by the performers in the studio, a derived theater approach that makes Plush Productions feel distinctly authentic and spontaneous. “It’s a performer-driven score, changing the emotion of the sound and creating a kinesthetic experience,” Rhoads says. “These were the questions we started with: how do we play with the social codes of a roller rink? What mini-dramas are unfolding on the outside of the rink? One way we built the dialogue was to ask the ensemble what they’re curious about in this world. We created mini dialogues around mini-scenes and that generated the content of the relationships and the bubbling up of conflicts that needed to be resolved. You get a real sense of the people and their relationships to each other. They’re about people holding each other up. Each character comes to a moment where something is revealed. That’s what I’m most excited about—we need to have time and space to get things wrong. If it’s the nostalgia of a space or what is conjured by the space if you haven’t been in it, there’s a lot of joy inside it. I just think it’s delightful.”
Steppenwolf 1700 Theatre, 1700 North Halsted, (312)335-1650. November 7-16, Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3:30pm. $15-$40. Steppenwolf.org.