Arts & Culture » Feature

The archival ambitions of the Chicago Dance History Project

How a group of local dance advocates and scholars are amassing as much material as possible about the art form's relationship to Chicago



When the Joffrey Ballet relocated to Chicago in 1995, after a series of protracted negotiations with local officials, former Tribune dance critic Sid Smith declared that it was "a bold new chapter in this city's harried, checkerboard dance history." Twenty years have passed since one of the nation's most prestigious ballet companies moved its headquarters from Manhattan's West Village to State Street, yet the city's checkerboard history is still as harried as ever.

  • Courtesy Library of Congress
  • Katherine Dunham

That's the feeling among a group of local dance advocates who've set their sights on unearthing a forgotten piece of Chicago's legacy. They're setting the stage for an archive that could one day compete with the one amassed by Ann Barzel, the late Chicago dance writer who in 1996 at the age of 82 donated more than 300 boxes of books, photographs, film, and various ephemera to the Newberry Library. Back then the New York Times called Barzel's collection, which she started when she was nine years old, "unrivaled."

Enter a new contender: The Chicago Dance History Project, a collective that's dedicated its resources in part to unearthing "lesser-known individuals, organizations, and venues that have anchored Chicago's strong local dance community." The group envisions a public platform consisting of video interviews, digital images, and scholarly research, including oral histories from living, prominent figures in Chicago dance. Formed in 2014, CDHP is in the midst of a three-year endeavor to collect and house primary source material to determine "how Chicago has shaped dance—and how, in turn, dance has shaped Chicago—throughout the 20th century and into the present."

The establishment of CDHP marks a turning point for the preservation of Chicago's formidable dance heritage, says executive committee member Susan Manning, a professor of English, theater, and performance studies at Northwestern University and the author of several books on dance, including Modern Dance, Negro Dance: Race in Motion, and New German Dance Studies. She describes Chicago's dance history as "underresearched" and, for better or worse, perpetually overshadowed by what comes out of New York City. When the CDHP executive committee formed two years ago, Manning says, part of the plan was to bring renewed interest to Chicago dance, but an equally significant goal was to quash a pattern that has long been prevalent among historians covering this field.

  • Helen Balfour Morrison/Sun-Times Archive
  • Sybil Shearer

"In terms of the way dance history has been written, until quite recently New York was a very big center . . . from the 30s well into the 70s," Manning says. She refers to Japanese butoh, which gained prominence stateside in the 80s, and the work of European pioneers like Pina Bausch, as examples that forced dance historians to veer away from a New York-centric perspective on the art form. "So many of us who have been writing about the histories of American dance end up writing about the histories of dance in New York City," she says. Manning recalls a particular "aha" moment during a trip to the Newberry Library in the mid-90s while doing research for one of her books. "Katherine Dunham launched her career in the 30s, Sybil Shearer was somebody who was always intriguing to me, Ruth Page made her career here," she says. "I realized, 'Oh my gosh, there's this whole other narrative in Chicago.'"

That the narrative of American dance skews in favor of New York is nothing new. Lesser known are figures like Shearer, who received considerable notoriety after making her debut at Carnegie Hall in 1941 only to leave two years later for the quieter surroundings of the Chicago suburbs. Anchored there, Shearer's unpredictable career—which spanned everything from performance to choreography to criticism—was locally relevant but little known to audiences outside Illinois.

Shearer's career is one that reflects the broader concerns CDHP discussed during the early days of its inception, according to project director Jenai Cutcher West, a longtime dance writer and lecturer who earned her MFA in Dance and Technology at Ohio State University. "It's a shame that I've been studying dance and its history for many years and knew so little about Sybil Shearer and her work," she laments. "Given the quality of Shearer's work and the fact that it was rather well documented, I don't understand why it has been largely overlooked in existing dance scholarship."

Shearer's work may be overlooked, yet her legacy lives on thanks to the Morrison-Shearer Foundation, established in 1991 to preserve the Northbrook home where Shearer worked and to house an extensive collection of materials related to her career. West, however, also strives to uncover the lives of performers who amount to historical footnotes, like area native Charles Grass, 88, who in 1940 founded the duo the Riff Brothers with his childhood friend Bob Fosse.

Bob Fosse (left) and Charles Grass as the Riff Brothers, 1943 - COURTESY OF CDHP'S CHARLES GRASS COLLECTION
  • Courtesy of CDHP's Charles Grass Collection
  • Bob Fosse (left) and Charles Grass as the Riff Brothers, 1943

"Their situation was just fascinating," West says. "It's not something that would ever happen today: two guys from Ravenswood wearing tuxes and performing in everything from an Elks club to a strippers' club. Everyone knows of Bob Fosse and his work, but because he passed away 30 years ago, Charlie is the closest link to Bob's early dance history. And he's got a mind like a steel trap."

Since January, CDHP has been averaging at least one interview per week, and it's completed more than 25 in just more than a year. The goal is to record as many as possible from a list that includes more than 300 names and continues to grow. "I've been putting names on the list every time I interview someone," West says. "I ask, 'Who else should be involved with this project?' Then their names go on the list. I see that as part of my job too: to make sure that we are filling the gaps of our knowledge."

Filling those gaps, however, isn't limited to interviews. Part of CDHP's goal is to engage the community at large: it's partnered with organizations including the Auditorium Theatre, the Old Town School of Folk Music, and the Newberry to host panel discussions with stalwarts like Joel Hall of Joel Hall Dancers and Dame Libby Komaiko of Chicago's Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater.

CDHP's undertaking has uncovered some colorful, never-before-heard anecdotes about influential characters such as Chicago Dancing Festival cofounder Lar Lubovitch, whose career—and by extension the Chicago Dancing Festival—might never have come about if a fire hadn't ignited in a department store near the choreographer's childhood neighborhood, Maxwell Street, one winter. As residents surveyed the scene, Lubovitch's attention was caught by the jets of water shooting into the store's windows and freezing in place. As West tells it, the scene was so magical to Lubovitch that he suddenly felt the spontaneous urge to dance.

"At the most basic level the general public might not know that Chicago has a long history with dance and a very diverse dance scene that is still growing," West says. "But even more, too, I think what I'm starting to hear from these interviews is that dancers choose to stay because they can actually work here. They are supported in taking risks, and by support, that means everything from financial support to audience support."

South-side native Carlton Wilborn, the lead dancer on Madonna’s "Girlie Show" and "Blonde Ambition" tours, was interviewed as part of CDHP. - GETTY
  • Getty
  • South-side native Carlton Wilborn, the lead dancer on Madonna’s "Girlie Show" and "Blonde Ambition" tours, was interviewed as part of CDHP.

That account echoes the career of CDHP interview subject and former Hubbard Street dancer Carlton Wilborn, a native south-sider who staked his claim internationally as the lead dancer for Madonna's "Girlie Show" and "Blonde Ambition" world tours. Wilborn counts Chicago as one of the few major cities that give fledgling artists a chance to succeed without depleting their bank accounts.

"I wish that there was a way that it could become a broader conversation," says Wilborn of dance's extensive yet untold history. "Whether we're talking about dance or we're talking about music, it's crazy how many people don't know who so-and-so was, who [Rudolf] Nureyev was, who this person from Chicago was that made a big stand."

Wilborn has since spent the majority of his career in Los Angeles, though whenever someone asks where he's from he's quick to say Chicago. He hopes other cities will undertake efforts similar to CDHP before it's too late.

"Our younger generation, just because of the digital platform right now where everything is fast and swift and moving fast, it's been challenging for that culture to take a moment to go backward," Wilborn continues. "Everything is so about forward movement, so about finding the new, that our current culture has lost sight of the value of history. I'm open to spreading the conversation as much as I can, so that more people are taking stock of what makes us who we are. It's essential." 

Add a comment