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DANCIN' FEATS Deeply Rooted Dance: 20 years, and counting
by Joanna Furnans
2017-11-22

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Deeply Rooted Dance Theater ( DRDT ) is gearing up to present its 20th-anniversary season finale, "Deeply Free," with the much-anticipated premiere of INDUMBA, by South African choreographer Fana Tshabalala, along with celebrated works from its distinguished repertory ( Dec. 8-10, Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St., 7:30 p.m. ).

Let that sink in for a moment: Deeply Rooted Dance Theater is celebrating its 20th anniversary as a contemporary dance company in Chicago. Twenty years is no small feet ( dance pun intended )—and the company has not just withstood, but it has flourished during two decades of the country's political, social and economic roller-coasters.

Of course, its success is due to a great number of factors including the exquisite dancers who share their artistry, the managerial staff and board members who keep the organizational machine churning and the audience who routinely show up to support and engage with the work that is made. While DRDT is absolutely a community-oriented effort, its co-founder and artistic director, Kevin Iega Jeff, seems to be a key mastermind behind it all.

"We made it to 20 years! I'm excited about that," Jeff told Windy City Times. "As you know, with any artistic endeavor in this country it is a challenge to make it through financially. The fact that we are still here and we are thriving is pretty exciting. And," he continued, "If you notice, a lot of organizations do well for the first 10 to 15 years but the critical patch is whether they will make it the next 10 years."

Indeed, the success of DRDT was not the product of luck. Jeff had plenty of prior experience as an artistic director with his own company, JUBLIATION!, in New York City and then again as artistic director for the Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theater. Although he was only with that company briefly, that gig was the catalyst that relocated Jeff and his collaborators to Chicago. Loving the city and realizing that Chicago had the potential to embrace a new voice in African-American contemporary dance aesthetics, Jeff and his co-founders Gary Abbott, LaVerne Alaphaire Jeff, Diane Shober and Linda Spriggs, established DRDT.

Over the years, Jeff has relied on the learned experiences of his dance predecessors to understand some of the dos and don'ts of sustaining a company for the long haul. "Fortunately," Jeff explained, "I had mentors like Bernice Johnson, who had a studio in Jamaica, Queens, [and] who taught me a lot about company building from the basis of community. And I also learned from Alvin Ailey, when Alvin was alive. I saw his successes and I also saw his struggles which are not talked about a lot. The Ailey organization has a very shiny marketing approach which doesn't necessarily hold up the history of what it took to get that company to where it is now. When he passed away, Alvin's organization was over a million dollars in debt. They were very successful, they were renowned, but they were never financially solvent in his lifetime."

That isn't to say that this example of debt was the artist's "fault." The stereotype of the disheveled and disorganized artist who is capable of creative brilliance yet unable to balance a checkbook has thankfully been debunked. Great artists can certainly be terrific executives; however, it takes a unique skill set to think outside the box and consider the specific needs of not-for-profit dance companies. It's critical for companies like DRDT to generate structures within their organizations that support both the art-making and the business of the art.

"Artists may actually know what they need, they may know how to manage," Jeff said with a laugh. "It might look different than a traditional corporate structure. I have found, in order to make the art, we have to grow an institution that allows an artist to be free. And in order to create an organic institution, you have to grow people."

The "people" Jeff is referring to are not only the dancers who grow up in the DRDT studios or the administrators who hone their skills with the evolving needs of the company but the audiences as well. Communities that support the arts have to be willing to challenge themselves right along side the artists. Jeff explained:

"We've always wanted to do work that was not only artistically powerful but also socially responsible. We really have a commitment to not only entertaining our audiences through dance but also to leave them with some thoughts about how we are living our daily lives inside our society…

The company's premiere of Tshabalala's INDUMBA ( Dec. 8 only ) will be one of DRDT's most socially charged and artistically risky works to date. Originally created to explore methods of spiritual healing due to unresolved issues in the social and political climate of post-apartheid South Africa, Jeff and Tshabalala came together to create a Chicago-specific version of the work.

"I'm really excited about this work," Jeff said. "When I saw it in South Africa, it was so beyond dance—it was so visceral, so human, so African-contemporary. I really wanted to bring that work to America, especially since we have similar histories. It is a very challenging work and it is taking the company in a different direction. I hope the audiences who are used to the traditional work of Deeply Rooted are open-hearted with INDUMBA because we are forging new directions. "

The remaining two evenings of the weekend program will present DRDT favorites including "Femme," by dance education director Nicole Clarke-Springer; "Desire," by co-founder and associate artistic director Gary Abbott; and "Church of Nations" and "In a Child's Eyes," by Jeff.

For tickets and information, call 312-795-9777 or email tickets@deeplyrooteddancetheater.org .


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