Wade Schaaf is the founder and artistic director of Chicago Repertory Ballet, a small, sparkling company distinguished by a contemporary style peppered with tried-and-true classical technique that, in Schaaf’s hands, always feels fresh. CRB enters its eleventh season with a program of four short works, all by Schaaf, all brand new. I spoke with Schaaf about the program, running April 27-30 at the Studebaker Theater, and their ambitious project of creating a full program from scratch.
What inspired you to take on making four new dances for a single program?
I felt like, after we had our ten-year anniversary celebration, I wanted to push and make a big artistic statement. Aside from the fact that I’ve been eager to bring a lot of new concepts to the stage, coming out of our tenth year I wanted to put on the stage a bunch of new work and say to folks, “This is what’s new and exciting, moving into a new decade of dance.”
Tell me about the first piece, “Interconnect.”
I’m so excited for “Interconnect” to come to the stage because I started it in late February of 2020 and we rehearsed it until March 13 of 2020. Then we were forced into quarantine. When I was devising this program, I thought, “This is the time to bring it back and choreograph the second half.” One of our dancers—Miriam—her husband Matt composed the score for this ballet and that score has never been performed publicly before. Miriam wasn’t with us last season because she had her first child. She’s back performing with us and she’s performing in that piece.
The themes of this piece—isolation and connection—certainly tie into the pandemic that interrupted its creation. Did those themes emerge for you because of when it happened, or were you already working with them?
I don’t know if it’s me as an empath working with the energies around me, but these are themes I was working with before the pandemic. And I think it’s very common in big city life to sense there are people all around and yet feel like you’re all by yourself.
Did you think about it differently when you came back to the studio?
So much was done I felt like I was jumping back into the same ideas. The piece does have kind of a happy ending. Maybe going through all that and knowing we can come back on the other side, that influence may have been there.
Tell me about “Song of Songs” and the title.
For some time, I’ve been very aware of portrayals of male physicality. In general, I feel we don’t see a lot of tenderness and softness between two male-presenting people. Even when we do, and I see every day when two male-presenting people try to show affection, there’s still hardness, aggressiveness, violence even. A hug involves hitting someone on the back. A handshake must be firm and tense. It just seems as if we’re not allowed to explore tenderness and softness with one another. I chose to title it “Song of Songs,” because some of the research was from the book of the Bible. That book is a love song and in the Bible it’s a reflection of God’s love for humanity. I based all of that around an exploration of queerness and tenderness.
Why did you choose Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” for the score?
I feel a lot of loveliness, beauty and warmth in that piece and I like that emotional context. But there’s also homoerotic subtext from the original ballet Nijinsky made to it at the turn of the last century. While I didn’t make my ballet homoerotic, it’s already there in the context of the music for me.
Regarding “The Impermanence of Things,” the title comes from a Japanese concept?
Something I’ve been struggling with myself is what I’ve learned in the Japanese idea of mono-no-aware: The awareness of the passage of time and the sadness of knowing that things are impermanent and there’s nothing we can do to stop that force. In my own life, as I get into my mid-forties, it’s something I’m becoming more aware of. Also, while I was on vacation, I read the novel “Call Me By Your Name.” There’s so much of that in the book: it has all this imagery of the heat of the day, of time passing and this relationship that’s very finite. And both characters are aware of it. All these concepts are very intriguing, and I thought this is what I want to make.
What score do you use for this piece?
I found a composer who uses looping. It starts out with droning piano, and it builds and builds, using loops. It will crescendo into a full section and then drown back out, just like sunrise, heat of the day, and then sunset. This is the most contemporary of the pieces on the program.
Although the last piece has the most contemporary music on the program?
It does. I laugh because if there’s something of me and who I am, it’s this dance. I wanted to put what I’m into on stage. I’ve been very into an exploration of meditation and my own spiritually. And I’m very into disco. I love going to a particular dance party on Sunday nights and they play disco and house and I love it so much.
And so the piece opens with a goddess figure playing finger cymbals and other dancers are playing singing bowls on the stage. And then a huge disco ball lowers from the sky. The last section is an explosion of dance—we move out of the nightclub feel and it’s just pure joy to a disco remix of the Curtis Mayfield song, “Move On Up.”
You note that the last section of “Move On Up” is straight-ahead ballet technique. Was it fun to put ballet to disco music?
“Vibrant Variations: A Celebration of the Work of Wade Schaaf” at the Studebaker Theater in the Fine Arts Building, 410 South Michigan, April 27-30, Thursday and Saturday at 7:30pm, Sunday at 2pm. Family matinee Saturday at 2pm. Tickets at chicagorepertoryballet.com.