Jamaican-born dance creator Christopher Rudd premieres his powerful choreography for Chicago audiences at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Drive, on April 14, 2023. The all-male partnering piece titled Touche is part of the programming planned by American Ballet Theatre, which was originally founded in 1940 and has been headquartered in New York City. After decades of incredible work, Congress designated ABT as America's National Ballet Company in 2006.
Rudd is an out and proud member of the gay community with a revered background of work. At age 11, he was the first Black child to dance in the title role for George Balanchine's The Nutcracker. He graduated from New World School of the Arts High School and went on to work with a variety of companies before creating Asia's first resident show called Zaia for Cirque Du Soleil.
He performed in 2010 at the opening ceremony of the Vancouver Olympics and joined the Metropolitan Opera for three seasons after that. His shining talent was awarded numerous residencies and grants all over the world. This eventually led him to make his own company RudduR Dance in 2015, which continues to focus on social issues to this day.
This groundbreaking artist spoke on a virtual call the week before his first visit to the Windy City.
Windy City Times: Hi, Christopher. You are based out of New York?
Christopher Rudd: Yes. I am very excited to come to Chicago though. It will be my first time to be there. To come up with this work is really special and poignant for me.
WCT: What is your background?
CR: I am Jamaican born and I moved to the States when I was four years old. I grew up in Miami and began dancing with Carolina Ballet as a founding member. I danced solo with Les Grands Ballet Canadiens de Montreal, then joined Cirque du Soleil.
I retired from dancing and then started my own company called RudduR Dance. Started the company because I didn't think people would take me seriously as a choreographer unless I had my own work to show.
By chance, I met artistic director Kevin McKenzie on a train one day and I pitched him about coming to see my work. He eventually saw an audition piece that I made for ABT's incubator, and I told him my idea of creating a male-with-another-male duet. COVID happened, but the company still went forward with my piece and we practiced together in a safe bubble with daily tests.
It was a beautiful experience where I focused not only on the act of touching, but [so that the] the world could finally see a homosexual's need for affection. Touche was a result of that time, and the opportunity to create a gay dance piece.
WCT: How do you identify?
CR: I am a gay, Black man who uses he/him/his pronouns and is not native to the country. Oh, and I am also a Democrat!
WCT: When I joined the dance company in college, I was surprised at how many straight men were dancers in the group.
CR: Yes, in most of the companies I worked for, the men were straight. When I started casting my pieces at the beginning, it was hard to find men who would dance in a gay piece of work. Every director I talked to wouldn't even let me create a theme like that. To be able to do this for American Ballet Theatre is phenomenal, and it took a lot of bravery from everyone to see it finally realized.
Feeling my own mortality during COVID pushed me to go further than I would have gone before that.
WCT: You created this piece during a time when people were not touching each other and were told to stay six feet apart. Touche is a French word that means "to touch" in English, doesn't it?
CR: Yes. The need to touch is why I named it Touche.
WCT: Did you name the characters in this piece Adam and Steve as a biblical reference?
CR: It was a reference to the times of anti-gay rhetoric of "God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve." We are all created equally and having a person being discounted is something I have always found offensive.
I wanted to create Adam and Steve for gay people to look at, and see themselves in a work that was open and couldn't be explained away as straight. It is clearly not about two men being really close friends, or possibly about brotherly love. It is to honor the explicitness of our love, our story and our journey. I also wanted to normalize gay love and lust in society within the classical ballet world.
WCT: What story are you conveying through the various dance segments and moves?
CR: When people watch it, the story will be clear, but it starts off in a place of shame because of the world we are born into. As these men learn to accept themselves they bravely take off their clothes to stand naked before each other. We are able to watch the beauty and the exquisiteness of love right onstage.
WCT: Are the dancers regular members of the ABT organization?
CR: Yes, but they have different ranks. Calvin Royal III is a principal dancer and Joao Menegussi is a part of the corps de ballet. It is rare to have a principal and a corp member dance together.
There is a variation between them in age, rank and race. The common denominator is that they are both gay men who have lived in a society that censors gay love.
We are in a time right now where some people are trying to ban drag shows and take our rights away after fighting for equal rights for decades. I wanted this work to combat that and show all people how detrimental censoring is to society.
WCT: Did I read correctly that there are different dancers for the Sunday performance than the earlier shows?
CR: Yes, Calvin and Joao perform on Friday and Saturday with a second cast going in for the Sunday matinee. Their names are Jose Sebastian and Blaine Hoven. They are beautiful in their own way and get to tell the story of Adam and Steve in a way that is authentic to who they are.
With this work, people can see it numerous times and find different things each time. Every show is unique because nuances are revealed when it is performed.
I am adamant that the dancers be an interracial couple and be performed by gay-identifying cast members. That can be an obstacle, but it is important that they play a character similar to their own real-life story, and I also want people of color to give an opportunity to perform.
In ballet, dancers will play straight roles, but it is rare to have a character that LGBTQ+ performers can identify with such as this. Anyone may be trained to do these roles, but until the playing field is more equitable and men can play gay more often, I am placing these stipulations on it.
WCT: After the April 15 Saturday night performance you are participating in a post-show conversation?
CR: Yes, with the two original dancers Calvin and Joao. I am excited to talk about it because there was something very special in the way Touche was created. It was so magical, and there is so much fondness for our time together creating the piece.
The only person that will be missing from our team in Chicago is the intimacy director. She found a way to help us tell a story that is authentic and truly intimate, even with a huge crowd of people. While watching it live, the audience participates in the silence, almost like there is no need to breathe, so everyone can hear and see every moment.
Having this director is not usually done with dance choreography, and we were able to create intimacy in the performers because they were willing to go through the process of it.
WCT: What project is next for you?
CR: I just choreographed Lifted for American Ballet Theatre and hopefully that will come back into the repertory soon. All the collaborators for that were Black, which was a first for American Ballet Theatre.
I am creating a new, three-part work called Witness for my company RudduR Dance. The storyline takes the audience on a journey through time depicting slavery, the march toward equality and the current criminal justice system's effect on Black families. Part three will show a liberated tomorrow blending together contemporary ballet and the circus. The dancers will be on bungees, trampolines and walking tight ropes. I just need to finish the piece and present it!
Tickets for Touche's three performances can be found at AuditoriumTheatre.org or by calling 312-341-2300. For more behind-the-scenes Touche stories with Rudd, register for the Pride night post-show at pages.wordfly.com/auditoriumtheatre/pages/ABT-Pride-Night-Survey/ .