“I just kept making dances.” This is Winifred Haun’s answer to the frequently asked question regarding the longevity of the company that bears her name. Haun’s irrefutable statement reflects the choreographer’s good-natured, down-to-earth temperament, lightly tinged with gently self-deprecating humor. Musing on the informal founding of Winifred Haun & Dancers in the early nineties, she says a presenter who had invited her to create a group piece for a show asked for the name of her company. “I said, ‘I’ll get back to you on that.’ In the nineties we always called our companies ‘so-and-so and dancers.’” The name, like the company, endured far beyond Haun’s expectations.
Haun tells me she hadn’t planned on being the founding artistic director of a dance company for decades—that when she took a five-year break, starting in 2001, to raise her young children, she figured that was it. But then the work called her back. Now Winifred Haun & Dancers celebrates its twenty-fifth season with over 125 original dance works to its name and is returning to the Athenaeum Center for Thought and Culture on November 5 to kick off its Moonstone season. Why moonstone? “I love what it represents: new beginnings and steadfastness in the time of cyclical change.” Then, in Haun fashion, “Plus from a practical standpoint, moonstone comes in a lot of colors. There’s marketing to do for a whole season.”
The season opener, which runs one night only (“It’s expensive,” observes Haun), will feature a spectrum of works from the company’s history, starting with an excerpt from “Promise” (2009), which was inspired by the John Steinbeck novel “East of Eden.” “I was part of a mom’s book club in 2003 and I read that book—it’s a 600-page thing—and I thought it would be an amazing epic dance,” Haun says. “And I thought I would just do that dance and be done.”
“Promise” will set a bold opening to the show and the milestone season. The cast is large: the eight dancers of the company along with about a half-dozen young dancers and a few dancers in their fifties and sixties, “so it looks like a community. They enter doing what some may recognize as Graham walks,” (assured steps done with an erect spine, from the modern master Martha Graham, who is a big influence on Haun’s work). “It’s meant to represent a time from 130 years ago, when we were all very formal and upright, but still a community.”
New to the company but very familiar to Haun is “Love Not Me,” a solo choreographer Randy Duncan made for her in 1989, when they were both with the Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre. Duncan was serving as artistic director after the death of the company’s founder. Haun says she and Duncan have stayed in touch over the years. “When I had my babies, he came over. He’s the sort of guy who asks to hold a baby, which is awesome. I would get together with Randy a couple times a year; he critiques my work and I critique his. He is like an older brother. He is older than me, by the way.”
Duncan gave the solo to Haun & Dancers as an anniversary gift. It will be performed by assistant artistic director Summer Smith. When I ask Haun what it is like to revisit the piece decades later, she says she’s enjoyed reliving the experience. “My dad was a photographer and he took photos of Randy and me working on ‘Love Not Me’ together. The body memory is still there. I obviously can’t execute the same way, but as I’m showing Summer it’s like ‘Ah! it’s all still there.’ That’s reassuring.”
The season opener at the Athenaeum is named after a world premiere from Haun entitled “When day comes.” The name suggests not only a longing specific to this moment—at what we all hope is the tail end of a years-long pandemic—but the myriad moments of uncertainty and anxiety that run through our lives. “We were supposed to be at the Athenaeum in 2020, so now that we can be there, it’s like ‘when day comes,’” Haun says. “It’s like the moonstone: a new beginning. We need to live in the moment. That’s what the piece is about. The two halves of ourselves: One that’s afraid and one that quiets it, keeps present and moves forward.” The program also includes “Bento” from 2012, which features movement phrases from guest choreographers, and Haun’s 2018 “I am (not) this body,” about how the bodies of women and people of color are judged and devalued.
Haun’s company will move forward through the twenty-fifth season by returning to the Unity Temple in Oak Park in May of next year with their “Light in Spring” program. “We’re actually expanding, that’s the crazy thing,” says Haun. “We’re busier now than we’ve ever been. We have a lot of youth programs. The moonstone season… It really does feel like a new beginning. It feels like we’re emerging and growing. Which seems ridiculous considering the circumstances.”
At the Athenaeum Center for Thought and Culture, 2936 North Southport. Saturday, November 5 at 7pm. $39 general admission, $29 ages 6-18, free ages 5 and under. Tickets at athenaeumcenter.org.