In Performance: how to have a career without dropping the baby | Calendar | Chicago Reader

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In Performance: how to have a career without dropping the baby

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"Coming up as a young artist, I didn't know many artists who were parents," says choreographer, writer, performance artist, and mother of three Angela Allyn. "Maybe that was because I hung out with a lot of gay men. And most of the women dancers I knew in New York never married or had children. So I had some pretty wacky ideas about how I was going to accomplish all this."

Allyn moved to Chicago to head up the Chicago Dance Coalition shortly after earning a master's degree in dance education from Columbia University in 1985. Six or so months later she revived her New York performance group Abiogenesis Movement Ensemble, a multidisciplinary collective whose members ranged in age from 17 to 70; over the next decade the group became known around town for site-specific pieces that had dancers doing things like rappelling from Upper to Lower Wacker Drive and rising from the waters of Lake Michigan. Allyn's signature piece, Liars, is a dance and audio collaboration with This American Life host Ira Glass on the subject of pathological liars; her Vessels is a group piece for pregnant and recently pregnant dancers that features castanets made out of speculums.

In 1991 Allyn and her husband, photographer Matt Dinerstein, started the Doghaven Centre for the Arts in Three Oaks, Michigan, where they've mounted performances and offered workshops and retreats for artists ever since. Two years later she was "in the middle of my biggest commission," a feminist take on the legend of Don Juan for Bailiwick Repertory's "Don Juan Project," when she had her first child, Maya. "I thought I could jump right up after having the baby and go right back into the project," she says. "Nobody told me I couldn't....I went to my first rehearsal when Maya was six days old."

Allyn's children are now two, five, and nine. But at that point, she says, "I was really good at focusing on my work and ignoring my children; now I'm not so good at it." She kept Abiogenesis together until 1995. "Then I just couldn't do it anymore. Having an artistic career and children, and needing to make a living kind of got the better of me, so I went underground."

She focused on parenting and a series of day jobs, but continued to occasionally choreograph and perform. She also started writing plays and--after her second child was born--poetry. "It's a very good creative outlet for me," she says. "It's something you can do in small snatches of time, any time of day. It was also something I could E-mail to my other friends who were going through similar situations. It was nice to network with other people who were frustrated."

She performed when she was nine months pregnant with her youngest daughter, Tess. And at a 2000 poetry reading, "I ended up doing the reading while nursing her," says Allyn. "She did it every single time I had a reading, so I finally bought a nursing dress in black. Now I can literally run a rehearsal and perform dance steps while nursing."

Over the past several weeks Allyn's been racing to the Evanston Dance Center from her job as cultural arts coordinator for the city of Evanston to meet dancers Isabel Liss and Paula Sjogerman--also parents--and rehearse Domestic Blitz, a collection of poems and movement pieces based on scenarios such as cleaning house, dealing with a child's stomach flu, and chasing toddlers. One piece is built around a gesture Allyn describes as "about giving and giving and giving until there's nothing left to give. It's an outward-gesture thing, where everything's coming out and you're diminished every time you do it. Nothing gets put back in."

Allyn's also part of a fledgling Evanston-based advocacy group called Parents Work, which champions a societal rethinking of the relationship between work and family life. They're still hammering out their agenda, but issues on the table include lobbying the state to fund family and medical leave and the feds for social security credits for stay-at-home parents. "It's a huge political issue," she says. "There are all of these difficult choices--should I work more and see the kids less, do I pay for private school, do I give my time to public school? You find yourself as a resource having limitations, and you always feel guilty. I feel guilty when kids howl through rehearsal. I feel guilty because I'm not there to put them to bed because I have to finishing teching a piece. I feel guilty for not spending enough time on work because I have to be at home."

And when all of her children are finally in school? "I don't know," says Allyn. "Maybe I'll go on tour."

Domestic Blitz--which will be mounted in a larger production this fall--will be performed Sunday, March 16, at 4 at the Musical Offering, 743 Custer in Evanston. It's free; call 847-866-6260.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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