Gary Abbott and Kevin Lega Jeff, Dancers, Stephens
On Oct. 26, Deeply Rooted Productions ( DRP ) —which has been thrilling audiences for well over a decade with its breathtaking choreography and dancing—presented 'Celebrate Life!,' an evening that focuses on HIV/AIDS awareness. The event involved the performance of Classical Roots: An Evening in Three Acts and will, at one point, featured Noah's Arc actor Darryl Stephens reading text. ( 'Celebrate Life!' was just one part of a weekend-long series of events that will include an HIV/AIDS awareness event, a 'Gospel Night' and a professional women's brunch. )
Before the event, Windy City Times talked with DRP Artistic Director Kevin Iega Jeff and Associate Artistic Director Gary Abbott ( who both co-founded the organization, along with three other people ) about the upcoming event, choreographing at the Gay Games and the simple beauty of dance.
Windy City Times: What's the philosophy behind Deeply Rooted?
Kevin Iega Jeff: Well, let's go back a little. The catalyst for coming to Chicago was Joseph Holmes Dance Theater. I had a company in New York called JUBILATION!, and we on the precipice to go to a wonderful level. [ Unfortunately, ] AIDS took our board chair, our booking agent and the artist instrumental in my guidance. I started freelancing as a choreographer. I figured that I needed to heal.
Then I was approached to be artistic director for Joseph Holmes. I signed on for year. I asked Gary to come to choreograph a piece called Desire. He came to work that piece and [ the other eventual DRP co-founders, including Jeff's sister ] came to Joseph Holmes for a year. It was a stellar year artistically but there was so much inner struggle with the board that it wasn't feasible to continue.
Really, the continuum is Gary's history and what he brings as an artist. [ All of us ] look at it as bringing a team together that can share the vision to use the arts as a basis for empowering people in the process of self-actualization. It's also about speaking on stage about the humanity through our work.
Gary Abbott: Even though we're presenting that to the community, we also need it ourselves. We need to self-actualize, we need to always work on our craft [ and ] always work on our skills as human beings.
We want something that people can come and tap into. People are always touched in an emotional way; people can relate.
WCT: The first time I saw you all was last year at Jubilate! There was definitely an emotional connection between the performers and the audience.
KIJ: The key is to do that inside the responsibility of communicating and inside of entertainment. It's important that people are reminded—'familiar, yet newly found'—and we're committed to that idea.
What we're trying to do is to be informed by the world. Chicago is an international city and we've come from different places to be here. It's important to be inside this community but it's also important to be extended globally. If you're extended globally, you're informed.
If there's something different on a [ dance ] program that contrasts what've you seen, you become informed. A lot of what you see in Chicago is repetitive inside the community's view of how things should be.
GA: I think America's challenged with living globally. We live in our own backyard.
WCT: What is your audition process like?
GA: We like for people to come in and be part of a rehearsal period.
KIJ: Structurally, we have the summer intensive to build relationships and see what [ each other ] is about. Then, they can matriculate into the apprentice program; they might be really talented but they're not yet ready for the professional stage. From there, they matriculate into the company. Then, they have other opportunities; for example, one is with The Color Purple in Chicago. They become leaders in other fields.
WCT: What is the age range of the dancers?
GA: There's one who's 17; she's from Brazil. Our oldest is 48—and he's gorgeous.
WCT: So there's hope for me.
GA: What are you waiting for? You have your tights? [ Jeff laughs. ]
WCT: Uh, no. Kevin, what was it like being involved with the Opening Cermony of the [ 2006 ] Gay Games?
KIJ: It was really fun. It was really about community, not professional achievement—even though it was professionally done. The big high for me was working on such a large project, because I'd never done field choreography before. However, I had been exposed to it, because one of my mentors was Michael Peters [ the man behind Michael Jackson's Beat It and Thriller videos, among others ] . He was such a wonderful teacher.
The other piece was engaging with people who were gay and who were completely liberated. There was this [ lone ] athlete from Uganda; he came out [ onto Soldier Field ] by himself. It was amazing.
GA: [ Liberation ] is what this is all about. If you can free yourself up enough, you can express yourself. It's very valuable. That's freedom.
WCT: Tell me about Oct. 26.
GA: We have a wonderful board member named Patrick Carron who's a big fan of Noah's Arc; he's so giving. He thought about bringing Darryl to the company
KIJ: Patrick met with Darryl. It turned out that Darryl met Patrick because [ Patrick ] had opened a Web site in Darryl's name—so Darryl couldn't get it. They [ eventually ] talked; there was a meeting between them and our executive director, Byron Johns; and Darryl was smitten. The piece 'Jagged Ledges' is the centerpiece of the [ event ] and Darryl agreed to work with that, although he's a little nervous. Staceyann Chin wrote the text and we were vessels regarding the choreography; I really feel like God used us. We were in sync.
GA: It was amazing. Everything just clicked. You could tell it was supposed to happen.
KIJ: It's also very timely. The epidemic certainly affected each of us directly, and now you look at it's now a pandemic. There was this one statistic: Five hundred Black males from Gary, Ind., died within a six-month period because of ignorance and lack of [ healthcare ] access. That was devastating to me, especially the fact that it happened in America. As for the rest of the program, it opens with 'Classical Roots—European,' which reflects the choreography that Gary and I have done and it's done with a Eurocentric motif ( keeping in mind that Africans are in Europe and compose classical music as well ) . Yet, we also explore Bach and [ others ] . People think of Deeply Rooted and they think of African dance and they don't understand the breadth of movement inside our repertoire. 'Classical' is not always Eurocentric; it's also gospel, blues and contemporary themes.
GA: Act II is 'Classical Roots—Gospel & Blues.' We explore Thomas A. Dorsey, who was famously known as the grandfather of gospel music; he wrote the song Precious Lord. However, he began as a blues singer and was a prolific writer; he'd be Kanye West now. He was known for writing songs with sexual innuendoes. Unfortunately, his wife and daughter died during childbirth—and he became a gospel singer.
KIJ: So Gary leaned toward the blues side and I leaned toward choreographing the gospel side ...
GA: [ Pointing to himself ] Devil. [ Pointing to Jeff ] Angel. [ Laughs ]
KIJ: [ Also laughing ] That's not true. But anyway, I'm really interested in the dichotomy. Sexuality and sensuality are related. Sexuality evolves out of sensuality; sensuality is about senses—there's a natural connection. I think that people can choose relationships that are damaging—and I've done this myself. Something may be attractive but can be damaging. To me, this piece is about paying attention to what we know intuitively and knowing that we can learn something about ourselves. Let's not chastise ourselves for being on either end of the spectrum; just be who we are.
GA: They wrote the songs because of the complexity of their souls and what they needed to say. They wanted to express themselves.
[ NOTE: Act III is 'Classical Roots—Contemporary,' which contains the aforementioned 'Jagged Ledges.' ]
WCT: Which choreographers have influenced each of you?
KIJ: I have to say Aca ( whose Western name is Lee Thompson ) , who's my mentor and my teacher. There have been distant ones like Alvin Ailey, who was a progenitor and broke ground. [ But ] I would say Aca because he's a powerful, interesting force; his contemporary could be Sammy Davis, Jr. [ Aca ] and I have had a long relationship; he started teaching me when I was 14, and I'm 46 now. He is not only a great artist, but he affirmed what creativity is about—as well as the responsibility of it. I could also mention Michael Peters and Bernice Johnson, [ the latter ] who is a major force in my life.
GA: I think Iega [ has influenced me ] . I've always been moved by his artistry, ever since his days in JUBILATION! His choreography is humane and clear, and I found that attractive. Then, when I meant him, he turned out to be so gentle and caring. There's this impression that he's so big and intimidating [ but it's wrong ] . He's so caring. Even now, I sometimes can't believe that I'm standing next to him.
There's this woman in Denver named Cleo Parker Robinson, who's been running her company for 36 years; she attracts all of these wonderful choreographers. Then, there's Donald McHale, who's my 'choreo-daddy.' [ Laughs ] He's the first big choreographer I had ever worked with; he's also very kind. I'm attracted to kind men.
Windy City Times received an extra treat when several DRP dancers stopped by to talk about what drew them to the company. Carmel Louis had decided to stop dancing but saw DRP perform and connected emotionally. 'They used art as social change and gave back to the community, which drew me back,' she said. Carolina Monnerat, who hails from Rio de Janiero, started off dancing ballet but felt that she was in a rut regarding her own expression. However, a modern-dance transformed her; she eventually came to Chicago and decided to stay. She likes that the company 'has integrity and vision.' Brian Harlan, who originally trained with Alvin Ailey, 'fell in love with Kevin Jeff's movement;' he feels that the dancing is challenging and fulfilling. DeeAnna Hiett loved seeing JUBILATION!, and was in the Ailey company—but felt 'like a puppet.' Hiett also loves the movement involved with DRP and enjoys connecting with the audience. 'I feel like I'm just now able to really dance, express myself and touch people,' the mother of two said.
For more info about the troupe, see www.deeplyrootedproductions.org .