Under normal circumstances, the Dance Center of Columbia College curates a series of performances September through June that bring the best small and mid-sized companies from Chicago, the United States and abroad to their 270-seat black-box theater in the South Loop. But this is no normal year. And in the midst of a pandemic that has suspended live indoor theater, the Dance Center has retooled their fall 2020 season to focus on residencies for local artists, an expanded virtual education program, and a handful of live-streamed and filmed performances. Ellen Chenoweth, director of the Dance Presenting Series at Columbia College, talks about how she and the entire Dance Center faculty and staff reimagined the Fall season, looking for abundance in lean times, as well as the power of small changes.
How did you think about creating a Fall 2020 season amidst so much uncertainty?
One of the starting places was thinking about what things are possible in this moment. What are the strengths and advantages? We’re in the unusual position of being embedded within a dance department. One of our advantages is that we have so many incredible educators in our midst. We can still teach classes online, and online classes have been popular in quarantine. We have a lot of instructors teaching master classes, and we have community members teaching who don’t normally teach at the Dance Center.
One of our strengths is that our platform connects national and international artists with Chicago community members, so we’re wanting to take a moment to spotlight Chicago artists to our national and international friends.
It sounds like you’re seeing an opportunity to reach out to more students of different backgrounds interested in exploring dance from their homes. How are you reaching people and making these classes available?
We’re calling it a dance buffet, a virtual feast. Our buffet is sitting alongside our regular curriculum, but you don’t need to register to take these classes. You can just take a single West African class with Emily Stein or a single ballet class with Paige Cunningham. These are teachers who usually teach at the Dance Center. It’s like a sampler pack. We’re in the process of building a website that will launch September 1.
Tell me about the residencies you’ve created this year.
We’re doing two production residencies in partnership with Chicago Dancemakers Forum and Performance Response Journal. These artists will have space and support personnel at the Dance Center. Nejla Yatkin will shoot a dance film in our theater and we’ll release it over the fall. Jumaane Taylor will perform a piece that we’ll livestream from the Dance Center.
We also have virtual residencies—a term that’s sprung up since the pandemic. We have awarded these residencies to three Chicago artists: Sara Zalek, Jenn Freeman and Kierah King. Each of them is interpreting the commission differently. Kierah just graduated from our program in May and she’s such a bright emerging artist with an amazing trajectory ahead of her. I’m curious to see how someone just coming into the field is going to interpret this new way of thinking. We are giving the artists a fee that they will apply to one project they’re working on.
What do you hope audiences will experience with the online version of these performances?
Both with the performances and classes, the sense of connection that comes with art and performance. How can we be active social connectors, decreasing isolation and loneliness? Thinking about Nejla’s project in particular, her piece is emblematic of art’s capacity to heal. There’s so much grief and fear right now and I feel like art helps us process things that are as necessary now as before.
You mention in the press release seeing new possibilities being available. What are the new possibilities you see?
It’s such a moment of questioning what we’re doing and how we’re doing it and how we’re working to dismantle racism. How things we’re doing on the surface that seem small could be important. Just as one tiny example: in the past, we’d have a few employees at the Dance Center who are part-time devoted to the presenting series, and then we have a lot of faculty and staff who are less hands-on but are still part of the community. The protests and the conversations around equity right now have me thinking about who’s at the table when we’re talking about programming. For the first time, we had a meeting on Zoom that included everyone on staff. I can’t remember a time when we had staff and faculty at the table together dreaming about what programming could look like.
That’s where the spirit of abundance comes from too. [Director of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion] Raquel Monroe put that on the table, saying let’s think about plenty, instead of thinking about what’s not available. It’s scary to put out programming so different from what we usually do, but it also feels more in the spirit of the field and the artists we’re working with to give things a try. I hope people can embrace that experimental spirit.
The Dance Center of Columbia College will premiere Nejla Yatkin’s “The Other Witch” October 23 at 6pm and Jumaane Taylor’s “Ugly Flavors and The Jazz Hoofing Quartet” live-streamed November 7 at 7pm. All performance content accessible with donations of $20 or more. All-access classes with donation of $120 or more, single classes available. Registration and tickets at dance.colum.edu.