Biracial, gay, sextogenarian, California native … Gary Chryst is all of these things, but first and foremost, he's a dancin' man. From ballet to Broadway, from New York to The Hague, he has literally danced around the world for decades. Chryst, 63, is in town working with Thodos Dance Chicago (TDC) putting the finishing touches on the centerpiece of the company's winter concert, a new work about the early relationship of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan co-created by artistic director Melissa Thodos and Broadway legend Ann Reinking.
Born in La Jolla, Calif., Chryst's family moved to the East Coast when he was 8. At 14, he entered the High School of the Performing Arts (think Fame!) to study acting, but quickly switched to the dance department. Upon graduating, he landed a job with the Joffrey Ballet, where he met an apprentice by the name of Reinking, starting a long friendship and eventually a working relationship.
While he danced a number of pivotal roles during his tenure with Joffrey, it was his performance as The Profiteer in Kurt Jooss' The Green Table (which Joffrey performed earlier this season) that caught the eye of an esteemed audience member and set in motion the next chapter of his career. "Annie would bring Mr. Fosse to see the Joffrey," said Chryst. "He loved The Green Table because of the theatricality." When Joffrey went on a six-month hiatus in 1979, Fosse asked Chryst to join the cast of his Broadway show Dancin', which had Reinking as its star.
"Every decade I do something different," he said. "The '80s is when I did my Broadway shows (Dancin', A Chorus Line, Guys and Dolls) and from there I went to Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT)." Chryst joined NDT III, a company created by Jiri Kylian for older dancers, at a time when most dancers would be easing into retirement. "When you're in your 40s, you think you're done," said Chyst. "Jiri had this wonderful idea for creators and dancers of a certain age, he called it between 40 and death, to create pieces on artists of that age, at this point in their career, because you can do things like stand on stage and it can mean a helluva lot." He calls the six years he danced with NDT III in The Hague the most artistic part of his life so far.
Just as a hip injury had him rethinking his career, Reinking was in need of someone to help audition and stage the international touring casts of the musical Chicago. "Annie called me and I said I'd come help," Chryst said. "That was the beginning of a 15-year adventure with the musical. I ended up being Annie's eyes and ears." Eyes and ears, right-hand manwhatever you call it, he became an indispensable aide.
When Reinking collaborated with Thodos on a new story ballet in 2010, she called on Chryst to come work with the dancers. The White City: Chicago's Columbian Exposition of 1893 premiered in 2011 to glowing reviews. Still celebrating the success of their first ballet, they started thinking of what to do next. Thodos credits Chryst on the idea that sparked the new ballet, A Light in the Dark: The Story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan, set to premiere this month. Chryst recalls watching TDC dancer Jessica Miller Tomlinson rehearsing a scene from The White City where she is locked in a box and suffocates to death. "I was watching Jessica in the studio during the suffocating scene. She can't see anything and she looked so young in that white dress and I thought blind. During the research for the ballet, I read that Helen Keller visited the fair and I thought what a wonderful role that would be for her."
Talking about his career makes Chryst reflect on how far he has come. As the son of a white mother and Black father, he's thrilled to be living in the age of Obama. "I thought I'd see a woman president before I'd see someone of color in office," he said. "Also, in dance, there wasn't that many people of color in ballet companies. Robert Joffrey was one of the first to go 'color-blind,' as we called it. Even in the late '60s touring in the Midwest, it wasn't comfortable. Now, to see the diversity of Americans and the demographic change is phenomenal. It's amazing how it's changed. Being colored and being gay, I have quite a few strikes against me. I have to pinch myself. To live through all that … it's quite amazing."
Thodos Dance Chicago presents its Winter Concert 2013featuring the premiere of A Light in the Dark along with two other world premieres and a repertory workat the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, on Saturday, Feb. 16, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $36-$46; call 847-673-6300 or visit www.northshorecenter.org . The performances will also be presented at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph St., Saturday, March 2, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, March 3, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $30-$60; call 312-334-7777 or visit www.harristheaterchicago.org .
Other February shows:
The Joffrey Ballet presents a two-week run of its American Legends program featuring works from Twyla Tharp, Jerome Robbins and Gerald Arpino as well as a world premiere from Stanton Welch at The Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, 50 E. Congress Pkwy., Wed., Feb. 13-Sunday, Feb. 24. Performance times vary. Tickets are $31-$152; call 800-982-2787 or visit www.ticketmaster.com .
Seattle-based husband and wife team zoe | juniper comes to town with a full-evening work, A Crack in Everything, inspired by the Greek tragedy The Oresteia at The Dance Center of Columbia College, 1306 S. Michigan Ave., Thursday-Friday, Feb. 14-15, at 7 p.m. Tickets are $26-$30; call 312-369-8330 or visit www.colum.edu/dancecenter.