Hubbard Street Dance's virtual 'Tale of Two' premiere explores cultural dichotomies

  • Choreographer Rena Butler, right, and dancer Alysia Johnson perform in "A Tale of Two," Butler's new dance work that her former company Hubbard Street Dance Chicago premieres virtually as part of its 43rd season.

    Choreographer Rena Butler, right, and dancer Alysia Johnson perform in "A Tale of Two," Butler's new dance work that her former company Hubbard Street Dance Chicago premieres virtually as part of its 43rd season. courtesy of Talia Koylass

 
 
Posted10/22/2020 7:30 AM

Growing up in Chicago, choreographer/dancer Rena Butler recalled hearing loud bangs and quick pop-pop-pops. They sounded like fireworks.

They weren't, not every time.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"If you hear (the sound) enough you're able to distinguish between a gunshot and a firecracker," Butler said.

Those memories informed the Chicago native's newest work, "A Tale of Two," an examination of the city's cultural dichotomies created for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago where Butler was an ensemble member.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago ensemble members perform in choreographer Rena Butler's "A Tale of Two." Filmed by Talia Koylass, the virtual premiere will mark the start of the dance company's 43rd season.
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago ensemble members perform in choreographer Rena Butler's "A Tale of Two." Filmed by Talia Koylass, the virtual premiere will mark the start of the dance company's 43rd season. - courtesy of Talia Koylass

But it was a more recent experience of sitting on a back porch and once again hearing that loud bang that startled Butler into creating a work as timely as the day's headlines.

"I felt that I had the ear of the public," she said. "This was a perfect opportunity to speak on something people were actually paying attention to."

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"We're seeing this great awakening happening in the U.S. and abroad," she said, referencing the Black Lives Matter movement and protesters' calls for social justice and an end to systemic racism. "Maybe by speaking about it people will actually listen."

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago ensemble member Alysia Johnson, left, and choreographer Rena Butler perform in Butler's new work, "A Tale of Two," premiering online.
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago ensemble member Alysia Johnson, left, and choreographer Rena Butler perform in Butler's new work, "A Tale of Two," premiering online. - Courtesy of Jonathan Alsberry

Filmed by producer/director Talia Koylass, "A Tale of Two" premieres online this week as part of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's 43rd season, presented virtually as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The production is underscored by nursery rhymes and childhood games and features music by Darryl J. Hoffman and vocalists Shawnee Dez and Alencia Norris.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"The great thing about Hubbard Street, they've always allowed me to investigate whatever I'm interested in," Butler said.

Butler's experience growing up as a person of color in Chicago inspired the work, which Hubbard Street associate artistic director Jessica Tong says addresses the cultural and economic divide between residents along with the "hard realities of violence in our city" and its effect on young people, Tong said.

"She wanted to speak her truth and we wanted to support that," said Tong, who describes "A Tale of Two" as an "important, powerful work."

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago opens its 43rd season with the virtual premiere of choreographer Rena Butler's "A Tale of Two," filmed by Talia Koylass.
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago opens its 43rd season with the virtual premiere of choreographer Rena Butler's "A Tale of Two," filmed by Talia Koylass. - courtesy of Talia Koylass

Not everything unfolded as planned. Butler intended to introduce the dancers to participants in GoodKids MadCity, an organization that promotes leadership and community service and offers job assistance to young people who've experienced violence and trauma firsthand.

Too often people get caught up in the glitz and glamour of certain Chicago neighborhoods and forget other communities are struggling, she said.

"I wanted the dancers to go to Englewood to hear their stories ... to engage and connect" with young people who don't have access to counseling that could help them work through the trauma they endure every day, she said. "I wanted to raise awareness."

The coronavirus made that impossible. Instead, dancers' research consisted of reading articles, watching documentaries and talking about what happens in communities outside their own.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago opens its 43rd season with the virtual premiere of choreographer Rena Butler's "A Tale of Two" filmed by Talia Koylass and featuring Adam McGaw, left, Butler and Alysia Johnson.
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago opens its 43rd season with the virtual premiere of choreographer Rena Butler's "A Tale of Two" filmed by Talia Koylass and featuring Adam McGaw, left, Butler and Alysia Johnson. - courtesy of Talia Koylass

Rehearsals took place initially via teleconference and later outdoors at the park, playground, ball field and highway underpass where the performances were filmed over four days in August. Dancers and creative team members followed COVID-19 protocols on quarantining, face coverings and distancing. Everyone was tested before and after the process, said Tong, and temperatures were checked daily.

"It was a blessing. Everyone was open to see how we could make this work," Butler said.

Butler recently concluded her three-year tenure with Hubbard Street and moved to New York City at summer's end. Her "A Tale of Two" is the latest in a decadeslong series of thought-provoking works, Tong said.

The objective is to find "the connective tissues that bind all of us," she said. "Art and dance has this language. It's a special form that can connect people emotionally. It's a form that has a way of breaking down barriers."

• • •

"A Tale of Two"

What: Hubbard Street Dance Chicago opens its 43rd season with the virtual premiere of a new work by Rena Butler

When: Streaming online at 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 22, and Saturday, Oct. 24, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 25, at hubbardstreetdance.com

Tickets: Free, but donations will be accepted

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