By Jordan Reinwald
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago + The Second City in The Art of Falling (from left): Tim Mason, Jessica Tong and Carisa Barreca (photo by Todd Rosenberg).
From the Summer 2016 Issue of Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts
What happens when two of Chicago’s most well-known and highly celebrated performing arts companies come together to bring audiences a brand new show? The Art of Falling happens. Premiering in 2014 to wild success at Harris Theater for Music and Dance, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and The Second City’s The Art of Falling was a ground-breaking collaboration that had audiences begging for more. This summer, the work is back by popular demand after a successful run in its premiere and another successful stint in Los Angeles in November of last year.
The unique two-act production combines sketch comedy with contemporary dance, musical theater and improvisation for a comedic dance experience rarely seen by the typical audience of either individual form. Bringing audiences from the comedy world to potentially see their first ever professional dance show (and vice versa), the work does more than simply combine the two performance genres. In a creative process lasting well over a year, the work brought together Hubbard Street’s largest ever production team, gave them their busiest ever box-office success, and fostered crossings in the project’s respective communities, opening new roads for future collaborations of this sort. Though partnerships like this happen on a small scale all over the city, this work takes it one step further by placing this kind of show squarely at the forefront of the city’s arts scene, setting an example for other such collaborations to happen on this grand scale. In announcing the project, Hubbard Street’s artistic director, Glenn Edgerton, explained, “I’m proud that, here at Hubbard Street, we’re open enough, willing enough and have a company ready to embrace a project like this. It’s been thrilling to watch Billy Bungeroth (project director) and our incredible creative team put it all together.”
Motivated by the common desire to participate in and foster cross-disciplinary collaboration, the production was born when directors and artistic teams from both companies came together to create an interplay between the two disciplines that both showcased their respective art and supported the other's voice.
Hubbard Street is, of course, no stranger to cross-disciplinary collaboration. The company has recently worked to develop collaborative projects with the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and the Chicago Children’s Museum. Likewise, The Second City has, in recent years expanded significantly into collaborative projects with Lyric Opera of Chicago, Writers Theatre and Goodman Theatre. Kelly Leonard, who was, at the time of the inception of The Art of Falling, the executive vice president at The Second City noted, “Our project with Lyric Opera was so creatively inspiring—not to mention such a business success—that our team met to discuss what other artistic mash-ups might be similarly satisfying. The first idea proposed was that we collaborate with contemporary dancers, and Hubbard Street was the overwhelming choice for this partnership. The fact that Hubbard Street’s team had the exact same idea at the same time only proves that some projects are meant to be.” So, with Jason D. Palmquist, Hubbard Street’s executive director, and Glenn Edgerton, Hubbard Street’s artistic director, the project began to fall seamlessly into place.
Once the stepping stones were set, choosing the right people for the project became a priority. “I can’t imagine a better group of people to be tasked with this epic and unique collaboration” producer Andrew Alexander told me. “From the director to the choreographers to the writers to the performers, the amount of talent involved in this collaboration is seismic.”
Fresh off of the success of The Second City’s previous collaboration with Lyric Opera, Billy Bungeroth was appointed the project’s director and launched into the arduous process of finding a groove between the two companies. In the subsequent months, the largest creative team in Hubbard Street’s 38-year history—including more than 30 performers—were assembled to devise The Art of Falling.
The Second City’s Tim Mason acted as head writer for the production, and additional writers Kate James and Carisa Barreca were added. The team expanded throughout 2014 to include T.J. Jagodowski and Chris Redd, and some archival material from existing productions of The Second City were adapted to fit the unique needs of the production.
Julie B. Nichols was appointed as the work’s music director, composer and sound designer, combining the existing pieces of music and recordings that would be used for specific scenes with new music, songs and transitions, in order to shape The Art of Falling into a cohesive whole.
Choreography was covered by Hubbard Street power pack Alejandro Cerrudo (resident choreographer), Lucas Crandall, Jonathan Fredrickson, Terence Marling and Robyn Mineko Williams. To cast the production, Bungeroth says, “We live in a city that is just brimming with incredible artists. I’ve really felt like I’ve gotten to encompass the huge range of talent here in Chicago, which was something Glenn Edgerton said right when we first started this collaboration: ‘Let’s look at who’s in Chicago. Let’s look at what’s right here in front of us.’” Hubbard Street and Hubbard Street 2 dancers, along with The Second City’s impressive roster of players comprise the star-studded cast.
Assembling amazing teams was the first step, but for two companies whose specialties lie in two different artistic hemispheres, finding a way to work together in a mutually respectful way became the next challenge. Initially, the two companies held working sessions for building understanding between both organizations as to how new works are develop—and to establish the role of improvisation within the regular practice of each company. Dancers were taught some speaking, acting and playing basics, and comedians learned to dance. Yes, comedians learned to dance.
Hubbard Street’s studios were all used so that multiple scenes and ideas could be tried out and developed simultaneously. Of this process, Edgerton points out, “We have a deep commitment to innovation in contemporary dance, and many of our works created in-house, by company artists or guest choreographers, are devised in collaboration in ways quite similar to how The Second City’s members create their shows. Improvisation is a key part of our DNA on both sides. So it’s a natural fit for us to join forces, and I’m thrilled to watch this project make its way to the stage.”
While many of Hubbard Street’s works do not follow a rigid narrative, The Art of Falling does indeed take the audience through a narrative journey as it follows an assortment of characters through an inspiring voyage of risk-taking and “letting go,” which is quite appropriate in that a fair amount of risk must have been associated with first embarking upon such a unique collaboration between an unlikely pair of artistic troupes. With dance and spoken word performed by both comedians and dancers alike, both sides were forced to step out of their individual comfort zones, learning new skills and tackling the same elements of risk as the central characters of the show.
The lessons The Art of Falling offers about life are quite the same lessons that Hubbard Street dancers and The Second City actors learned during the course of making the show, bringing the entire effort to full circle.
Of course, in some ways, the production can change in each performance as much of the structure relies heavily on improvisation, but the touching story remains in tact. Edgerton explains that crafting a detailed description of the show's plot is a tricky pursuit, that one simply has to see the production unveiled to understand the magic of this exemplary union. “Everyone’s asked me to define this collaboration, and my answer is, quite simply, ‘You have to see the (show),'" said Edgerton. “I can say it will include some touching moments, some profound moments and a lot of truth, which underlies all humor.”
The Art of Falling runs June 9 through 19 at The Harris Theater for Music and Dance. Whether for the first time or returning to this unique show, Chicagoans get one more chance to enjoy it before it’s gone again.
Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts