"I was a choirboy most of my life," says Ahmad Simmons. "My whole family is religious. But when I started to dance, I started to feel different in church."
That conflict has driven the 25-year-old choreographer's passionate work over the past few months—what he calls his "summer of creation." Charged with three choreography commissions and the movement for a dance-theater staging of Federico Garcia Lorca's Blood Wedding, the River North Dance Chicago performer presented four premieres between May and July. Two in particular illuminated the power of combining religious fervor and doubt: the pared and pure Blood Wedding—staged by Kacie Smith of Pursuit Productions, where Simmons is co-artistic director—and Panem Nostrum Quotidianum ("Our Daily Bread"), which he created for Thodos Dance Chicago's "New Dances."
Simmons means "choirboy" literally. He started in fourth grade at the Texas Boys' Choir School (now the Fort Worth Academy of Fine Arts), where students began each day with two hours of singing, followed by academics and what he laughingly calls PE: "We'd walk along the levee across the street. We were choirboys! We didn't really climb ropes or anything."
Simmons's interest in dance was piqued in junior high, when the school introduced a program that, as he puts it, consisted of students "rolling around" on a carpeted nursery floor in the church that housed the school. He moved on to classes at a dance studio, then to summer intensives with Debbie Allen in Texas and California; later he attended the prestigious Point Park University dance program in Pittsburgh.
Why the switch from choir to dance? "There were a lot of things that I felt I could express while dancing," Simmons says. "That's the cliche: when you can't speak, you dance.
"My childhood was a bit . . . abnormal. I say I have three different families, three different moms—and I do. My mother had me very young, 14 or 15 years old. So I lived with my great-aunt till I was about 12 or 13. Then I moved in with my real mother for a few years.
"My third mom—when I go home, I live with this family now, a wonderful Italian family—was the secretary at our arts school. Her daughter and I were really good friends, we'd sleep over and hang out." When Simmons's mom had to have surgery and couldn't drive him to school, he stayed with the Carusos. "I just never left," he says.
Simmons, who's gay, began having problems with his faith—which he describes as "very Baptist!"—as a young teenager. "I did believe very much in religion and church, I felt loved through that connection. But when I picked up personality traits of the male dancer, I felt like I wasn't being treated the same way by people I'd always known. And yeah, it was about the dancing." At Point Park, he says, "I felt for the first time like I could totally exhale, because everyone was so accepting. That's what made me realize, 'Oh, something's not right with my faith.'"
Simmons describes himself as a choreographer driven by emotion and intuition. "In college, in student choreography projects, it was about composition and 'I want to make the coolest steps' and 'I'm the boss.' Now it's about the feeling, it's visceral. The dancers' vibes and aura are really important to me—I tune into that. I love to feel I'm bringing something out of them, and they're bringing something out of me. It's almost like I can grab the energy in the room and shape it."
In November Simmons will perform with River North; in December, under the auspices of Pursuit, he'll present an evening-length dance work, directed by Smith. To start the process, she offered him three quotes; he chose one by Rainer Maria Rilke, from his Letters to a Young Poet: "Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love."
Hoping to bring the audience to a sense that fear connects us, Simmons is considering placing a Plexiglas barrier between them and the artists. "At first we're seeing them almost like zoo animals," he says. "But maybe later one dancer approaches the glass and makes a connection, changes the temperature. I want to say, 'This is you as well. I'm you. You were scared of me at the beginning because it looked like we were fighting, like I was an animal. But you're an animal too.'"