Random thoughts about watching and working in the arts, from HMS co-founder and executive producer Scott Silberstein.
Here’s a little story about a new video we produced with Chicago’s ad and dance world, which was created and just released online for National Dance Week. I think it’s a pretty good little tale. It begins with a conversation (paraphrased, for your benefit) that you don’t hear every day:
Head of ad agency: “OK, folks, we’re going to do an ad campaign the presents the Chicago as The Great American City. How shall we do it?”
HMS: “We’ve got it! A site-specific contemporary dance video.”
Head of ad agency: “Sold. Let’s do it!”
Think that doesn’t sound like a realistic conversation? Think that no one in the ad world would embrace the arts, let alone dance, as the best possible way to convey the true spirit of Chicago? Think again.
Actually, don’t think. Instead, click on the link below, and see for yourself. And then come back for a cool little story about how the video you’re about to watch got made.
Just after Valentine’s Day, a group of leaders from Chicago’s advertising community invited HMS down for an informal chat about creating a video saluting Ron Bess, North American President of Euro RSCG. Ron’s a legendary ad man – this is the guy who brought us, among other things, the “Be Like Mike” and “You Deserve A Break Today” campaigns. Ron was being honored with the Chicago Advertising Federation’s Silver Medal Award, and rather than commission a video honoring him, Ron wanted something that honored Chicago. I already liked him. Ron feels as strongly about Chicago’s advertising world as I do about our city’s arts scene – that we have the most human, grounded, creative, collaborative community in the country. Ron wanted to bring those worlds together to showcase Chicago with the kind of warmth, bravery, vulnerability and creativity that are hallmarks of our town’s ensemble spirit.
People like to give advertising guys the short shrift, but Mad Men stereotypes notwithstanding, I tip my cap Chicago’s ad world. When we explained that HMS put down roots here because we wanted to work in the best arts community in the country, and that we felt Chicago was the best because of its dedication to ensemble driven work and a philosophy that being part of a collaborative community was infinitely more satisfying and productive than seeking individual glory, the ad team responsible for Ron’s video smiled and nodded their heads. They got it, and the liked that we got it.
So when it came time to pitch our “big idea,” we went for it.
“Site specific contemporary dance,” we said. “We hear you talking about Chicago’s rhythm, its sense of movement, its specific energy. Nothing communicates that better than dance. So let’s place some of our city’s world-class dancers in locations all around the city, and just as Chicago finds extraordinary things in ordinary every day life, let’s create extraordinary movement to match.”
And God bless ‘em, you know what they said? “Yes. That idea’s exciting. And it scares us. So let’s do it.”
Now that’s the kind of spirit I expect from Mick Napier at the Annoyance Theatre, not a collection of ad folks. Shame on me for underestimating this remarkable community of creatives.
So we dove in. For the next week we worked with a lovely poetic text (penned by ad man John Claxton), found the right music tracks and asked the brilliantly versatile Chicago actor Heidi Kettenring to provide the voiceover. While completing the soundtrack, we called on our friend Billy Siegenfeld, artistic director of Jump Rhythm Jazz Project, the subject of Getting There, to date HMS’ most awarded PBS special. Billy’s got this uncanny knack for rhythm, and for choreographing in a most emotionally percussive manner. It’s not easy to do – to steal a phrase from Yoda, it requires a dancer to “unlearn what you have learned.” You don’t worry about looking pretty; you focus on being real. You don’t worry about reaching up to the clouds; on the contrary, you get down into the ground. You bring your full individual self; and then commit to the group. You don’t show off; you just help tell the story. When we talked with Billy about the story for the video – how an “everyman” would be called into the city by the sounds of a “rhythm man,” whose street tap dance would inspire him to experience the city as a piece of dance first as an audience member and ultimately as a member of the dance company – he said, ok, yes, I’ve got the story. Now, articulate the emotions for me. Don’t tell me what happens; vocalize how it feels. So we began talking about beats in terms like “What?” “Hmmm.” “Oooohhhh!” “Aaaahhhhh.” “Wheeeee!”
We set our three day shoot schedule, and in those moments when Billy was unavailable, we brought in two other wonderful choreographic voices to play off this same dynamic in their own special way: the gently powerfully Atalee Judy, and the reflectively lyrical Molly Shanahan. And we cast a wildly diverse group of dancers, of all shapes, sizes, colors and ages, many of whom had never met Billy, Atalee, Molly or each other before, let alone danced together. And then we said, “OK everyone. Let’s go be Chicago.” And they all said, “Yes.”
For three days, with the blessing of the City, the Park District, the Harold Washington Library and the Art Institute, our motley crew showed up, experienced the space, looked at each other, and did what Chicagoans do: got to work.
Billy called on us to use our hearts and souls to speak for our minds, and it was deliciously challenging and liberating. So too was watching Atalee structure an improvisation in front of a mural in Chinatown, using an iron gate fence as a launching point for dancers to explore the push and pull of people moving in and out of neighborhoods. And then seeing what Molly came up with to energize crowds crossing bridges over the Chicago River and channel the energy of city hall, not to mention improvise boldly in the middle of LaSalle Street.
We finished just as a huge storm was approaching, with a group dance by Billy that emerges from Cloud Gate in Millennium Park, the last shot accented by an astounding thunder clap that was, of course, right on the beat. And as we packed up our gear that night, and reflected on what had transpired over the handful of days since that first meeting, it occurred to me that I had not once heard the word “no,” in the course of a project that, in other hands, might have been filled with them.
A site-specific dance video, the kind we’ve never done and which honestly makes us terribly nervous, to advertise Chicago as The Great American City? Yes, let's do that.
Move away from traditional advertising voices and tap the Chicago theater community for voiceover talent? You bet.
Choreograph a series of site-specific dances without ever having seen the locations and not having met many of the dancers? Sure. That sounds like quite the fun adventure.
Dance outside, and inside on stairs and across library floors, in a choreographic style I’ve never studied before with people I’ve never met? Count me in.
Present this as Chicago’s statement for National Dance Week 2012? Why not?
Because in Chicago, this is what we do. We take chances. We take risks. We revel in that. We don’t play it safe. We play to the top of our own intelligence, and assume our audiences are even smarter. We look out for each other. Our producers and directors tell us they’ve got our backs, and we believe them. Our performing artists go out of their way to make their fellow performers look great, and expect that they will do the same for them. And above all, we value the work. The show. The ensemble. For this “Great American City” video project, every single person bought in to these ideas, and committed to the idea and the group, and that’s the reason it worked. No stars. No “You.” No “Me.” Just “Us.”
It doesn’t get more “YES” than that.