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Feature Sun Dec 21 2008

An Interview with Dancer and Director of GI Alliance, Jennifer Gage

Jennifer Gage has been dancing ballet, jazz, hip-hop, and everything in between for decades and hit the Chicago dance community in 1991. She has performed with numerous Chicago companies, including the great Joel Hall Dancers, and started her own dance company, GI Alliance. JenGage.jpgShe loves listening and choreographing to Metallica, got significant inspiration from a giant cast on her foot, and can touch the back of her head with her knee. GB managed to catch up with her at midnight just after she had finished performing a ballroom number in a contemporary dance company's concert.

When and how did you start dancing?

I started dancing because I was a complete clutz when I was a child and had zero coordination. My mom decided to take control and enroll me in dance classes to give me a bit of grace. I teased her when she came to see me do some professional shows when I was in my 20s. That's when it dawned on her that I'm really a professional dancer and that's what I do. She said, "I didn't know what that meant until I saw it. My daughter always had 15 little jobs and was dancing on the side. Now I can tell people my daughter is a professional dancer!"

My parents have always been very supportive as far as all of my activities growing up. If they could make it work, we would get to do it. Now they'll be off my back about not doing anything with a college degree!

How did you infiltrate the Chicago dance community?

I was dancing in Tennessee where my family was living at the time, and getting a fairly good and enjoyable education in the dance community there. My teachers would bring people there all the time, and because my teachers were from Chicago, the visiting artists were frequently from Chicago. They brought in Mr. Joel Hall several times, including the June after I graduated high school. During that visit, he said, "Miss Thing. When do you graduate high school?" I told him I just did. "When can you come to Chicago and dance for me?" I knew being in Tennessee wouldn't satisfy me as a dancer for the rest of my life and the possibilities in a large city would be endless. So I saved up my money and on Labor Day weekend my parents drove me up and dropped me off and said goodbye.

I loved it. At the time, the dance scene was quite interesting. This was 1991. Just a few years prior, the dance scene in Chicago was huge and booming. For instance, Joel's company was touring Europe and China and Russia. When I came to Chicago the dance scene had just hit a huge stop. The city had lost a lot of its arts funding, and a lot of companies got wiped out. There was a huge shift. I was very frustrated -- a fresh-faced little 18-year-old, and there was not much to be had. But something told me to stay in Chicago and I took all the opportunities I could, got scholarships with a ton of different studios, and got to work with a bunch of talented people. After the first year of being in Chicago, but being frustrated because there weren't a lot of opportunities for me to perform, it took a few years before I went back to Joel's to take classes. When I got into the company, I was overjoyed because that's what I came to Chicago to do.

What was the spark that made you start GI Alliance?

I was dancing solely with Joel's company at the time. I had gotten into his company a few years prior, and I was very excited, but still a little disappointed because after a few years with him of having lots of shows booked, by around 2002 we didn't have so much of that. Here we were at Christmas time after a show, and that was it. I was thinking, I'm in a major company. How can we not have any more contracts? And then I realized talking to a lot of the other dancers I'd known from other companies, nobody has a lot planned for that coming spring. So I thought, "I could do this. I betcha anything I could do this. It can't be that hard." I knew people who could hang lights. I knew people who could dance and choreograph. We might not get paid, but it would be fun, and we would be there because we wanted to be there, not because our director would throw chairs at us or because we were contracted to be there. Everyone I talked to was really excited about it. I worked my butt off between January 1 and April 6 to get our show up at the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. We all had family and friends who lived out in the suburbs. None of the companies were touring, so the idea was to bring part of the city out to the 'burbs.

How did GI Alliance escalate?

It was very cool because we had quite a number of fledgling companies coming out between 2000 and 2004, including RASA, Intimate Movement, Mike Gosney was choreographing pre-Elements. Choreographers were coming out and working with us, like Kirby Reed, Vanessa Truvillion, Duwane Pendarvis, Eddy Ocampo. Czarina Mirani was putting on a hip-hop Cinderella, and she came out and did an excerpt of that. Everyone came out and brought people who they knew and wanted to set things on. It was kind of a soup mix. A lot of different styles of music, and every style of dance made its way out there. It was really cool to see everyone come together because they wanted to.

And then everyone was asking us whether we'd do it again, so the next year we did it again! A lot of the same companies came out. People were saying, "Hey, I've always wanted to work with you. Can I set something on you?" It was very right for the people who were able to utilize it.

In 2004 I took that spring off because I realized I really wanted to focus on dancing, and a lot of opportunities were coming up that year. Then in the summer of '04, I broke my foot in rehearsal for Joel. I was crushed because I thought I'd just sprained my ankle yet again (I've done that about a dozen times), but then I couldn't get up. I had officially broken my fifth metatarsal bone and torn out my entire right ankle. So I was out for a bit. I stayed teaching ballet classes at Joel's while in a cast. I'd sit in a rolly office chair and roll on down the barre, go along and poke at people. I was immediately the old woman teaching ballet. I would stand at the barre, take my big ol' cast, lean way back into my left hip and say, "Okay, you know you can't stand like this, right?" I would get other people to demonstrate or I wouldn't demonstrate at all, just say the steps out loud and make the students do it, which is a whole different way to make them think about dancing.

Even with the cast on, it hindered me but it allowed me to get more creative about everyday things. At home it was awful, just to get a plate of food over to the table, etc. I started doing a lot of floor stuff, and I would stretch and move around, and I would penche to pick things up because the counterbalance would help me. I was healing at a very quick pace. I was getting all these ideas. All of that healing and focus, and knowing that three months from breaking my foot I was performing again, made me think, "I'm still not getting all the opportunities I want from other people, so maybe it's time for me to work on GI Alliance."

That fall I thought about what I wanted to do. It always came back to rock and roll music ... Metallica, Nine Inch Nails, the Beatles, what have you. I gathered a slew of music and started asking people if they were interested in doing another GI alliance show, and got a good response. It was really cool because that was when I said, "Now I've come to you specifically, and I know you as a dancer, and I think you have a lot to add as a collective."

Music often seems to be the inspiration behind your works, whether it's Metallica, Patsy Cline, Gnarls Barkley, or a song written by David Kav, your musician boyfriend. How do you decide which music you're going to use, and how do you go from music to a final, choreographed piece?

This is how I started every show -- whether it be an iPod playlist, or a CD or anything else, I tend to listen to the same stuff all the time. I would get drawn to certain things. It could be a certain element in a song that would lead me to some other idea. What if we did it like this? How would this song sound in this kind of a style, or without these instruments? I wanted to make sure I didn't just like it because it was popular on the radio. I like putting things together that people wouldn't necessarily think about putting together. The first part of my show "Reality Check" was Metallica from the S&M album, which was the San Francisco Symphony playing with the rock band, and then the third piece was Yolanda Adams, who is a gospel singer.

I like to list as many ideas as I can for each piece of music that I seem to be drawn to. A good example is the Gnarls Barkley piece. I was really drawn to numerous songs on that CD [St. Elsewhere], and I would listen to it over and over. What if I looked at this from a really dark angle, or from a really hopeful angle? What characters do I need to convey this story? Sometimes pieces don't make it into the show, maybe because of a time constraint, but sometimes it's me not getting my brain wrapped around it to the point where I feel I can come into the studio and present it to dancers. It can be great on paper, but I'll come into the studio and it won't be a perfect fit anymore. I don't always know who I'm going to get to work with. It's really neat to see where things are supposed to end up, and the way it's going to affect the audience, as well as the dancers I get to work with.

The fun part about putting together a show is figuring out how to put together hip-hop with jazz with anything else I can dream up, and not have the audience wonder what's going on. For them to just enjoy it for what it is, go along with the ride without being too confused.

What are your current endeavors as a dancer "making it" in Chicago?

I am teaching and dancing ballroom [at the River North location of Chicago Dance]. Every kind of ballroom, from Latin dancing to the smooth dances and everything in between. Sometimes I'm fascinated that this is dancing because it's so different from everything I've ever learned about dance, but at the same time, I'll realize, "Oh, I know how to do this." I love working with my bosses Tommy and Gregory, who are both World Champions. I was getting to a place this past year where I was constantly chasing where I was going to get the next gig, the next rehearsal, the next teaching opportunity. I needed to make a change for all of me, for my spirit, my soul. ... So I called Tommy and Gregory who had seen me throughout the Chicago scene and knew I had the background.

Performing is very unique. In all the other forms of dance, it's very honest and soulful and the music speaks to you and tells you what to do, what the story is, etc. In ballroom, you listen to the piece of music and you immediately categorize it into a bunch of dances, which means you can do the steps from these dances. When you watch "America's Whatever," you'll never see them do a basic step. But they would never do ballet to a hip-hop song, for instance.

And every once in a while I think, "Oh my gosh, am I really dancing in four-inch heels and the longest false eyelashes I've ever seen?!" Everything is very, very fake. Right now I have silver nail polish on from my ballroom performance tonight. It's actually something I would have picked out for a hip-hop rock and roll piece, so it's my little rebellion, but at the same time, since it's sparkly, it's so ballroom! It's very surreal.

Do you have anything brewing with GI Alliance?

I kind of do, but I haven't been able to see where it would go yet. I didn't do a show last year mostly because I had a lot of other stuff going on. It's always been a drive of opportunities, a drive of presentations. This will allow you to do this, these would be the themes and the ideas, and I have a lot of ideas, but nothing that has really gelled together. My focus has been on a completely different track, so I haven't allowed my mind to wander among the dancers and dancing that I'm used to. The next year in the ballroom world will be a year of "I've done this before." Every day has been, "What new thing am I going to learn today?" Now I can catch my breath. Every time someone asks me about it, it makes me feel so good to know that people are interested. I always say, "Keep your eye out, keep your ear out, we are definitely not gone." I'm still definitely interested in doing more things.

What has been one of the greatest moments in your life as a dancer?

The first one that comes to mind was 1997 and I finally got to do the Sugar Plum pas de deux for one of the companies I had been performing with for years. I was given the opportunity to do it for this one particular show. Normally the director would let my rival do it, but my partner and I had been working really well. That was one of the years my mom had been able to come and watch me, and it was the Monday night technical rehearsal. I can remember, it wasn't perfect, and it was on this God-awful little stage, but there was this one moment when everything came together, and it felt good, and I realized there were going to be a lot more little hems and haws throughout the week, but I was no longer nervous because it really all came together. I felt myself really dancing, really on my pointe, really on balance, and it was one of those "this is what I'm working for" moments. It wasn't a performance, but it was, because my mom was there, and it was for me, and for the director who was really only giving me this one chance. All the blood, sweat, and tears I had put into it really felt good. It gave me the push to know, just because something's wrong or messed up, doesn't make me a bad dancer. I had finally gained enough knowledge and information to work through a situation and be professional and pull through and make it shiny. I got to have many more moments like that onstage, in the studio, by myself, in front of other people, and that's what made it really stand out as something I could really do, and really do well.

About the Author

Rachel Zanders has called the dance studio her second home since the day she could toddle across a room, and she's still at it. A born-and-bred Midwesterner, she is elated to be living among "her" people here in Chicago. She feels lucky to make a living by editing or writing just about anything anyone will let her sic her pen on (OK, anything on which anyone will let her sic her pen).

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