“One thing that has become clear over the last several years is the realities of making art,” says Tara Aisha Willis, curator of public performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art. “Realities that have always been the case, but came into sharper focus during the pandemic. It is clear that artists need time, flexibility, process to be supported and not just the end product. I wanted to create a series that took that into account.”
Willis intends for that series to be “Chicago Performs,” a new mini-festival of performances by Chicago-based artists debuting at the MCA September 15 and 16. As the curtain lifts on the fall season in this Year of Chicago Dance (dubbed by the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events) in what looks to be the first return to full-scale, indoor performances in three years, presenters and curators like Willis are reflecting on how the field can and should evolve. “As we emerge from the last several years of chaos, I wanted to think about how we build those artists into our program in a consistent way year after year. [The MCA] has this track record of presenting experimental performances, how do we think about that national and global footprint we have while including Chicago artists?”
The inaugural “Chicago Performs” will shine a light on three local artists premiering new work: visual and performance artist Bimbola Akinbola, choreographer-dancer Erin Kilmurray, and dramatist Derek McPhatter. All three artists have prior connections to the MCA through their “In Progress” and “New Works Initiative” incubation programs.
Akinbola’s “You Gotta Know It: a durational moving meditation on (Black) collectivity, labor, and joy” will take place in the MCA Commons area on the second floor of the museum Friday, September 16. Four dancers will perform the ubiquitous “Electric Slide” line dance for seven hours straight. Attendees are welcome to join in for as long as they wish—as many doubtless will, considering the familiarity of the choreography, a staple of wedding banquets for decades. The performance, taking place over the duration of a typical workday, is a reflection on the unseen labor of dancers and performing artists, as well as an expression of communal celebration and joy through contemporary Black social dance. Willis says she thinks Akinbola’s piece is a perfect metaphor for the simultaneous excitement and awkwardness of society’s tentative return to group, in-person settings. “This is a dance we’ve all done at weddings and parties,” she says. “At the same time as you navigate the ‘Electric Slide,’ inevitably someone gets off beat, someone bumps into you or takes up too much space. Or someone walks to the bar partway through to get a drink and throws things off. Just the realities of this world we’re living in.”
Kilmurray and McPhatter’s respective hour-long performances take place in the Edlis Neeson Theater on the first floor. Kilmurray’s “the Function” builds on the dancer’s ongoing explorations of rigorous physicality and feminism through athletic movement. McPhatter’s “Water Riot in Beta” is a musical theater piece set in an apocalyptic future where activists battle for water rights in Chicago. Akinbola and Kilmurray’s pieces are premieres, while McPhatter’s is a first look toward developing a larger-scale production down the road. Thursday evening also features a panel discussion moderated by writer, curator and archival-publication project Sixty Inches From Center co-founder Tempestt Hazel. The theme of the conversation: Joy. Not just as a pleasant feeling, but a useful—perhaps necessary—tool for survival in an ever more difficult world.
“I see this program as a platform for Chicago artists to expand their practice in some way, either in experimentation, collaboration or scale,” Willis says. “In this first year we want to give attention to each artist, which is why it’s just three artists this first year and not twenty,” though Willis makes clear the plan is to expand the festival in duration and the number of artists supported in subsequent iterations.
The other goal of “Chicago Performs” is to connect local artists with out-of-town institutions that might be interested in presenting their work. Willis says the two-day Thursday-Friday format allows invited VIP visitors to experience the festival in full and then have time over the weekend to build relationships with artists and experience more of Chicago art and performance before heading home.
“This is a moment to celebrate Chicago’s performance scene,” says Willis. “For me, [the MCA] has done performances for a while since COVID hit, but I think I’ll be celebrating live performance and being in the building for another year. I hope ‘Chicago Performs’ creates an annual cohort of artists who propel forward their careers and propel Chicago.”
The festival culminates in a DJed dance party Friday night for attendees to meet the artists, practice being together again and exercise joy.
“Chicago Performs” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 East Chicago, (312)397-4010. Thursday and Friday, September 15 and 16. $20 for a one-day pass, $30 for a two-day pass. Tickets at experience.mcachicago.org/packages.