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The Painful Profession

Art, emotion, and illness take their turns at center stage in a new documentary about River North Chicago Dance Company.

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When Scott Silberstein's fledgling HMS Media shot a half-hour documentary about River North Chicago Dance Company back in 1993, it was a turning point for both organizations. Initially aired on WTTW, the documentary, Reality of a Dreamer, was picked up for national broadcast by PBS. Suddenly, River North artistic director Frank Chaves recalls, the little four-year-old troupe was on the dance-world map: "Our phones were ringing off the hook, and all the touring started. It was a landmark moment for us." Reality of a Dreamer even won a regional Emmy

From that time forward HMS and River North had a bond, Chaves says—a sense that they were "growing up together." They collaborated on an hour-long documentary for River North's tenth anniversary, in 1999, and have just completed a third project, Every Dancer Has a Story: a one-hour special scheduled to air this weekend on WTTW.

The special marks another decade in the life of the company, shows off a contemporary repertoire that has broadened from the group's jazz roots, and displays the emotion that Chaves says enables his dancers to "tear down the fourth wall" and reach their audience. At its center is his own story—the story of a body becoming less and less responsive to its owner's bidding.

Chaves was dancing with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in 1989, when River North was founded by Julie Burman Kaplan, Karen Frankel Jones, Mark Dow, and Ronna Kaye. Within a year, they'd turned it over to dancer/choreographer Sherry Zunker, and Chaves joined her as associate director soon after—he likes to say he "got there on day two." When she left in 2001, he became the company's sole director.

River North has been a resident troupe at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn, for about 12 years, and is also a regular at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Millennium Park, holding a gala there in the fall and two or three performances in the spring. Chaves says the 13-member company does 30 to 40 performances annually, touring widely in the U.S. Its 2008 schedule included a Ravinia gig and a swing through Europe that took it to Switzerland, Germany, and Luxembourg. This is all done on a budget of about $1.2 million, about 70 percent of which comes from donations and grants. There's no endowment.

Chaves says the idea has always been to present "high art" entertainingly. The variety that keeps an audience—and a company—on its toes is a major priority. A typical River North program features seven to ten short pieces, two or three of them by Chaves and the rest by other contemporary choreographers.

Along with its signature emotiveness, River North's technical and stylistic flexibility is visible in the new documentary, which was conceived by Silberstein, directed by his partner Matt Hoffman, and created at a cost of about $105,000, including $35,000 worth of work donated by HMS. Every Dancer Has a Story features portions of pieces by the likes of Daniel Ezralow and Robert Battle as well as a generous sampling of Chaves, from his taut Take a Seat (where chairs become straitjackets) to his athletically romantic At Last (all blue velvet and starlight). Between the performances—strikingly lit by Todd Clark—there are glimpses of rehearsals that leave the dancers prostrate and panting and snatches of face time with the troupe.

In the rough cut I saw, some of the talk was dispensable. Do we really need to be told, for example, that "dance is like a religion" and "the company's a family"? But some of it feels real and raw. "Every dancer should have—at the end of their career, whenever that is—a piece that sums up their self," says River North member Jessica Wolfrum, before she chokes up and can't say any more, of her own role in Chaves's wrenching duet The Mourning. Silberstein says that in every group that's previewed Every Dancer Has a Story, someone has cried.

We also see Chaves—who coaches his dancers to charge into an embrace as if they were going to fly right past it—owning up to the troupe about the atrophy in his left leg and the pain that wasn't just, as he tried to tell himself for a couple years, "another old dance ache." Chaves has a fluid-filled cyst in his spinal cord that presses on nerves there. He's had surgery to prevent further growth. "Meds are helping [with the pain] and it's stable now," he says. And though the prognosis may be uncertain, he's not. "I've pictured myself in a wheelchair, still creating beautiful things," he says. "I could be in a wheelchair and still have my imagination. I pray it won't happen, and I don't expect it to happen, but I have pictured it."

Every Dancer Has A Story airs Sunday, January 11, at 3 PM and Monday, January 19, at 2:30 AM on WTTW 11 and WTTWD. Silberstein says he's also creating a series of one-to-three-minute River North podcasts that he hopes will be available on iTunes early next year. The company, whose shows critic Lucia Mauro has called the perfect first date, performs a sneak peak of its season on January 20 at Ruth Page (call 312-944-2888 for tickets) and then three world premieres at the Harris Theater on Valentine's Day weekend, February 13-14 (312-334-7777).v

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