Isadora Duncan called dance the “highest intelligence,” and Nietzsche thought a day without it wasted. Chicagoans would agree. A line at the show’s entrance proclaims: “Dancing runs like a stream through the landscape of Chicago’s history.” Indeed, this exhibit puts dance in this city—in all its myriad, diverse, community-based forms—on the map. It doesn’t just treat ballet or ballroom as dancing but also includes mambo, jump, powwows, tap, square dancing, cabaret, flamenco, jazz, bharata natyam (Indian classical dance) and more.
It might have seemed impossible to capture the dynamic movement of dance in an exhibition of inert objects and documents. Yet curators Alison Hinderliter and Samantha Smith are to be commended for doing exactly that. Here are posters, pamphlets, photographs, costumes and more, artfully arranged in a way that delights and educates. Wall-sized timelines of the history of Chicago dance provide interesting and sometimes startling information. The first dance recital was in 1838, just five years after the city’s founding. Mrs. George Pullman (yes, that Pullman) started a dance school in 1878. Hollywood star Bill “Bojangles” Robinson taught dance here in 1930. Dance in Chicago seemed to peak in the 1980s and nineties, which was also when the AIDS crisis ravaged the community, as photos and documents attest. Admirably, movingly, there is a large photo of auditorium seats taken from the stage––a dancer’s view––where visitors can post the names of their own dancers who perished. It’s mostly full.
In time, important dancers became renowned teachers: Katherine Dunham, Ruth Page, Sybil Shearer and more. Many founded important and enduring schools, like that of the “2 Russians,” Andreas Pavley and Serge Oukrainsky (neither in fact were Russian), or the once thriving Stone-Camryn school. Pearl Pachaco Williams’ Bronzeville dance classes taught the black students who weren’t welcome elsewhere. It gradually becomes clear that the story of dance in Chicago is primarily the story of heroic women. Along these lines, dancer, teacher, critic and filmmaker Ann Barzel (1905-2007) emerges as a city treasure. Her films of famous dancers (two play on loops in the exhibit) are mesmerizing, and many of the objects in this show come from the vast collection she donated to the Newberry.
Standout objects include a ballet toe shoe signed by Pavlova, Ruth Page’s choreography notebook, a photograph of a young Indian powwow dancer applying make-up in a car mirror, and a couple of ravishing full-length costumes. But nearly every object is precious and rarely seen; more dance-knowledgeable visitors will be especially rewarded. By the end of the exhibition, you’re convinced that Chicago not only has its own tradition of dance and instruction, but that the city was a leader in modern and ethnic dance expressions.
Access to the free exhibit is just inside the front entrance. The galleries themselves are a result of the recent renovations that have created larger, more modern and more usable spaces, including an inviting visitors center and hip bookstore. There’s an airy lightness about the Newberry now, and it’s matched by the sprightly dance displays of the present exhibition. (Mark B. Pohlad)
The Legacy of Chicago Dance is on view through July 6 at the Newberry Library, 60 West Walton.