The South Chicago Dance Theater is growing by leaps and bounds

If you’ve never heard of the South Chicago Dance Theater, it’s not surprising.

The company was founded just five years ago, and founder and Executive Artistic Director Kia S. Smith admits public acclaim hasn’t always kept pace with its explosive growth. But that was about to change on May 20, when the company presented its inaugural performance at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, one of the city’s premier arts venues.

“We’re looking to expand our audience base,” Smith recalls when she was considering performing at the Millennium Park Theater about a year ago, “and the Harris Theater is so centrally located in the city that it would give us the opportunity to do more.” People just know we exist.”

The program, entitled An Evening with South Chicago Dance Theatre: Celebrating Five Years, features five world premieres from a diverse group of choreographers including Smith, who was a 2021 Choreography Fellow at Jacob’s Pillow, a prestigious dance festival and school in Becket, Dimensions.

“The celebration of diverse voices is very central to what we do and who we are,” she said.

The Chicago native dreamed of running her own dance company when she was a child, and in 2017 she was finally able to make that dream come true. And there was little doubt as to where she would start it.

“I have a lot of connections to the city’s South Side,” Smith said. “My great-grandmother actually came here during the Great Migration and lived in the South Chicago area, so I think I just have a passion for the south side of the city.”

The still young organization does not yet have its own quarters. For the time being it resides at the Hyde Park School of Dance, which has been providing space on a non-cash basis for several years. “That’s where I got my high school education,” Smith said. “It’s like my dance family.”

South Chicago Dance is multifaceted, beginning with its professional dance company, which consists of four dancers on a 44-week contract and guest artists, as well as a program for emerging artists. A total of 12 dancers will take part in the program on May 20th.

Members of South Chicago Dance Theater hoist Kim Davis during a rehearsal for 'An Evening with the South Chicago Dance Theatre: Celebrating Five Years' at the company's rehearsal space at the Hyde Park School of Dance in Hyde Park.

Choreographer Wade Schaaf (far left) rehearses members of the South Chicago Dance Theater, including dancer Kim Davis (center, top), in the company’s rehearsal studio at the Hyde Park School of Dance.

Like the variety of approaches she seeks in choreographers, she also wants society to be diverse. “When I’m picking dancers,” Smith said, “I don’t like it when people look the same or dance the same.”

Lourdes Taylor, a Chicago native who received her early training at the Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center, joined the company in 2021-22 as an emerging artist and hopes to return. “It’s been great working with Kia,” she said. “She has a really unique style and commitment to her own fresh voice, but she loves the way so many of us — and we’re all quite different — interpret her movement and give her our own style.”

In addition to its performing troupe, the organization hosts the annual South Chicago Dance Festival, scheduled for September this year, and sponsors educational programs at 11 public schools and a youth training company.

For the first two years of the organization, Smith covered his start-up costs with some help from family and friends. The company received support from foundations and donors for the first time in its third year, when it had an annual budget of $80,000. That number doubled to $160,000 the following year, and the 2021-22 budget has grown to about $400,000.

From the start, Smith had high artistic ambitions for the company that went beyond establishment and simply trying to carve out a niche in the Chicago dance scene. “When I think of South Chicago Dance Theatre,” she said, “I think of it from a global perspective. So when I make new work or commission artists, I also think: How would this piece look on the world stage? ? It’s so much bigger to me than Chicago, or myself, or even the South Side of the city.”

Such talk about a global dimension of the company’s work is more than just words. As part of Choreographic Diplomacy, its cultural partnership initiative, it performed in South Korea in November 2019 and in the Netherlands in March.

But thinking internationally doesn’t mean the company hasn’t cultivated strong local ties. Smith received support from other members of the Chicago dance community such as Nan Giordano, the artistic director of Giordano Dance Chicago.

“We love the community,” Smith said, “but I’m just not trying to necessarily fit into the community. I just want to have our own unique way and way of doing things and try to be more innovative and pioneering.”

One way she hopes to make the company more experimental and distinctive is through her development of what she calls “dance opera,” a type of interdisciplinary work that fuses movement, live sound, and stage and projection design into a “holistic performance experience.” . South Chicago Dance is scheduled to present the first such work at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Autumn 2023.

Choreographer Wade Schaaf and Kia Smith, Artistic Director of the South Chicago Dance Theatre, pose for a photograph at the Hyde Park School of Dance.

Choreographer Wade Schaaf and Kia Smith, Artistic Director of the South Chicago Dance Theatre, are photographed at the Hyde Park School of Dance.|

The May 20 line-up will not include a dance opera, but it does bring together five new works, each created in a different style, beginning with her piece “In Lieu of Flowers,” a duet she composed after the death of her Father created and explored the stages of grief. “The work has helped me connect with myself and keep me together,” said Smith, who serves as the company’s resident choreographer.

In her first collaboration with South Chicago Dance, Wade Schaaf, founder of the Chicago Repertory Ballet, has put together a 12-minute contemporary ballet for seven dancers entitled “Coeurs Séparés (Separated Hearts)” inspired in part by the choreographer’s “kinship”. became. with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

“A lot of this is based on the idea that you might be going through a challenging time,” Schaaf said. “To me I call it heartbreak and the journey you can take while having that feeling, which is the full range of human experience — joy, sadness, and connection with others.”

The program also includes the jazzy “On a Lark” by Stephanie Martinez, the Afro-modern “Lit-anies” by Crystal Michelle and “HYbr:ID Line” by Ron De Jesús.

“The dancers literally fly through the air,” Smith said of De Jesus’ feature-length creation. “It’s a really elegant and just powerful work.”

Members of the South Chicago Dance Theater rehearse at the Hyde Park School of Dance for the upcoming An Evening with the South Chicago Dance Theatre: Celebrating Five Years.

Members of the South Chicago Dance Theater rehearse at the Hyde Park School of Dance for the upcoming An Evening with the South Chicago Dance Theatre: Celebrating Five Years.

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