Lightscape and the Chicago Project

picture of lightspace in the Chicago Project

This picture fell out of a program we found from the premiere of the Chicago Project circa 1987. I forgot I danced in that production, partnered by my colleague Lon Gordon. In that year, I was the artist in residence at Mundelein College in Chicago.

My rehearsal space was in a beautiful, old mansion on the lake just opposite the main Mundelein art deco classroom building which faced south on a curve of Sheridan road. Each morning I walked into Piper Hall as that mansion was then named, and up a grand mahogany staircase where a colorful leaded glass Tiffany window met me at the first landing.

There was almost never a time when I didn’t stop there and feel the rich shimmering colors. I let my body be bathed in the reflected almost three dimensional lightscape. I walked through it as I continued on, up the stairs to a finished attic with two pillars but mostly open space, where I taught and rehearsed my work.

Light and Space become Dance and Architecture

I was born and reared in Chicago, and I remember being aware of my architectural surroundings. The revolving door at the exit of Carson Pirie Scott made me dance in circles, the artful expression of Louise Sullivan’s theory of design was displayed on the outside of the building and the door pulled me into the space. While the pattern on the floor there set me off on an exploration of intricate arm circles. I was eight, on one of the many shopping trips I took with my grandmother on Saturdays after ballet class. Often, I got trapped in the revolving door, too distracted to realize that most people used my dance space as an exit or entrance. Those explorations of a mindless eight-year-old, became the opening section in the Chicago Project.

Supported by the multimedia photos provided by my collaborator, Frank Vodvarka, the choreography explored the Sullivan’s philosophy. As Frank’s wife, Joy, said to me one day, Sullivan believed that the image of the seed or the seed of an idea has all the information needed to fulfill that idea. Frank and I would spend many an afternoon discussing, over at least one bottle of wine, how we might create a performance work using motion, including bodies and visuals that would embody what Joy hade verbalized so well. I retold stories about my experiences in the Carson’s revolving door and about my daydreams while climbing the stairs in Piper Hall. As we drank and talked, I would aimlessly draw connected wavy lines and circles, along with repeated curved gestures on a note pad. All the time wishing I had the talent to sketch.

Luckily, Frank could read minds or so it seemed. The abstract animated birth of a flower from a seed that he created as his portion of the opening work seemed a clear representation of my aimless scratching. He had made sense of my messy drawing or perhaps we were both just on the same page. My choreography in that section of the piece has been reworked, evolved and deepened over time but Frank’s original visuals are the spine that keeps the work unified.

The “Chicago Project” is Born

Frank and I both agree that we don’t remember how we met or why he agreed to be co-creator on this project. But, as we both observe “the project has legs” and for some thirty-four years this affable, talented artist has been a dear supportive friend who shares more than a mild interest in Louie Sullivan. We both agree that we remember the premier of the work on the Mundelein stage.

We used the standard technology of the time. Frank produced slides for each image he wanted projected on the screen. Those slides were housed in three slide trays that were stacked on top of one another. Each slide was manually cued then dropped into positioned in front of a projector and the image appeared on the screen hung upstage of the dancers. From today’s perspective, we were prehistoric cave dwellers carving images into rocks with flint stone hammers.

On opening, night just after the first section something happened. From my position in the wings, I looked at the screen. Nothing, no image just something that looked like a scratch was projected there. For a moment, I had an out of body experience. This could not be happening. I looked toward the technical booth and saw Frank nervously wrestling with the slide trays. One of the slides had gotten stuck in the tray and Frank was trying to free it. The slide was blocking all the others from smoothly falling into place in front of the projector.

Neither of us knows exactly how in his moment of heightened panic he divined a super speed gesture that would free up the slide. But with plus racing whatever he did corrected things as he manually adjusted the temperamental little square. The piece was saved, and the rest of opening night went on without a hitch.

Note: We no longer use manual slide trays.