Deeply Rooted blooms.
While his associate, Gary Abbott, works with the cast of Desire—one of five pieces Deeply Rooted Dance Theater performs for its 15th anniversary program Thursday 24—artistic director Kevin Iega Jeff explains the company’s open-door policy. The dancers are free to pursue other engagements while remaining active members of DRDT’s roster; many work in the concert dance world (Twyla Tharp projects, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Ailey II) or on Broadway (upcoming Ray Charles show Unchain My Heart, The Color Purple, Fela!) between Deeply Rooted’s productions.
“When the dancers come back, they come here to contribute to and revisit the values that brought them into dance,” Jeff explains. “There’s a mission behind our work.”
We talk with Abbott and Jeff about the mission later, but before the conversation even begins, evidence of it is right in front of us. While running Jeff’s new dance, I Am Deeply Rooted, the ensemble comes to a stretch of music still awaiting choreography. Brian Brooks fills the gap with a fiery bit of improvisation. When it’s time to reenter the score, there isn’t a huge shift in style or intent: Brooks’s response to the music blends seamlessly with Jeff’s directives.
Sometimes the dance is in the steps, but other times, it’s the energy with which they’re done that’s the point. I Am Deeply Rooted ends not with a choreographic flourish, but on a clear note of determination and sense of self.
“On the one hand, this piece for me is about reconnecting with the values that I think are important,” says Jeff, “and for the dancers, they’re drawing upon where those sources are in regard to their own lives.” Research for I Am Deeply Rooted included conversations about friends and family members’ words that had anchored the dancers in times of uncertainty. Jeff asked them “what they think of in the morning that helps them get through the day—the thing that roots them in a storm. Or even, when things are going really well.”
“That can be its own kind of storm,” we offer.
“Tell me about it!” Jeff laughs.
The reference could be to any point in his or Abbott’s career. Both men have been successful as choreographers, directors and performers. They’ve also seen once-vibrant organizations grow dim as they stabilize, and are determined not to let DRDT fall into traps that tend to appear, oh, somewhere around the 15-year mark. “When you look at leadership as being a figurehead,” says Jeff, “what you’re doing can easily become stagnant. That person has to keep growing, too.”
“Neither of us are too big to answer to the dancers,” adds Abbott. “We’re all here together, doing the same work.”
Their goals aren’t modest. Both talk plainly of building Deeply Rooted into “a company steeped in the African-American tradition that plays the world stage. We have Hubbard Street and the Joffrey…and we should,” Jeff says. “Now we can start developing institutions that represent all of Chicago.”
Deeply Rooted kicks off its 15th anniversary season at the Merle Reskin Theatre Thursday 24.