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DANCIN' FEATS Kristina Isabelle: Chicago's dance darling
by Lauren Warnecke

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Kristina Isabelle, 45, has had a busy schedule since the moment she arrived in Chicago. "I feel good. ... It's been amazing to be here!" she said in an interview with Windy City Times. "The level of dancing and commitment to dancemaking are so strong here, and it's been fun."

A native of Columbus, Ohio, Isabelle came to Chicago with a wealth of experience under her belt as well as an impressive resume that notably includes three years each with Stephen Petronio Company ( New York ) and Bebe Miller ( Columbus, Ohio ), degrees from Juilliard and the Ohio State University, and a wealth of performances, residencies, teaching, and choreography that brought her from Columbus to New York, San Francisco and back to Columbus again before landing in the Windy City.

Perhaps because of her varied experiences and inability to sit still for too long, Isabelle is a sort of chameleon. She can and does adapt to every type of work environment, dancer, venue and genre. Last year she created a full length contemporary dance work as a Chicago Dancemakers Forum Lab Artist, fashioned a short solo for an engagement at the Museum of Contemporary Art and performed late night on stilts at the Human Rights Campaign's HER event. Long story short, you can put Kristina Isabelle on stilts, but you can't put her in a box.

At present, Isabelle finds herself with two pretty big coals in the fire. She is premiering a new 10-minute work as the guest choreographer for Thodos Dance Chicago's 14th installment of New Dances. Windy City Times visited her in rehearsal at Thodos' home in Old Town. "We try to pick New Dances artists who will benefit from the program, and will also benefit us," said Founder/Artistic Director Melissa Thodos as the dancers rehearsed. "It's an interesting time in [Isabelle's] career," The work itself, which was still awaiting a title, is confrontational, as though the dancers are engaged in a beautiful cockfight. Isabelle's dance is a blending of choreography and improvisation, and according to Thodos the process has pushed the dancers to new heights.

The week before New Dances premieres, Isabelle will be in the Netherlands as the first American company to perform in Deventer Op Steltenà ( Deventer on Stilts ). For 18 years the town of Deventer has been holding the massive stilt street-theater festival, and Isabelle has attended twice before. "It's a dream for me to perform there," she said, and after eight years her dream is finally coming true. Many miles away from New Dances ( figuratively and literally ), an older work calledà Levels & Lines will be performed eight times over three days of the festival.

One original cast member from Columbus will join the group in Deventer; the rest of the cast is entirely new, and has been stilting together for a few short months.

Isabelle, on the other hand, has been on stilts for 20 years. "When I got out of Juilliard, I thought I'd get in a company right away … but that didn't happen!" she laughed. She moved to San Francisco, motivated by a desire to work with the legendary choreographer Joe Goode. Sadly, he was on sabbatical once she got there. "I knew I wanted to be politically active, and I met this stilt group doing environmental-sociopolitical theater. … I told the ladies who directed it, 'I've gotta get up there,'" she said. "That first time I got up there, it just clicked: this is a pointe shoe. Everything I do on the ground, I want to do on stilts." A move back to Columbus for graduate school afforded Isabelle the chance to further develop the stilt work for dance.

Isabelle was creating independent choreography concurrently while dancing with the Stephen Petronio Company in New York after graduate school. "I loved the company, [but] I always wanted to do my own thing; that was always important to me. I never wanted to just be a dancer. I love performing, but I really love making. So, I left New York!" Isabelle officially formed her company in Columbus, but remained cognizant of the protective bubble a small city can provide. "I wasn't getting my work out there," she said, and this, in part, motivated her to move again, this time to Chicago. And she's been busy ever since.

It seems as though Isabelle is on everyone's list for collaborations and projects. As most of the Chicago dance community can attest to, however, a full schedule doesn't always equate to a full bank account. After nearly 25 years as a professional dancer and choreographer, Isabelle's priority today is sustainability. "I want to build a community of dancers making work together. How do I keep going?" Isabelle asked. "I am in a place of trying to figure out how to keep running a dance company. It is a frustrating time but I wouldn't want to do anything else. Honestly, I love what I do, I am inspired every day by the dancers that are in the room with me and I love pushing the limits of what I can physically do and emotionally say with this moving body."

Thodos Dance Chicago's ( TDC's ) 14th annual New Dances features work by guest artist Kristina Isabelle and TDC company members John Cartwright, Annie Deutz, Tenley Dorrill, Kyle Hadenfeldt, Brandon Harneck, Jon Sloven, Alissa Tollefson, Diana Winfree and Lauren Zimmerer.

Performances are Friday-Saturday, July 18-19, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, July 20, at 5 p.m. Tickets are $35; $28 for students and seniors; $20 industry ( dancers and teachers ); and $10 for children 12 and under, and for groups of 10 or more. Tickets are on sale now at or 312-266-6255.

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