Deeply Rooted Dance Theater celebrates Quincy Jones in outdoor musical program

For its fifth appearance in the Chicago Park District’s “Night Out in the Parks” program, Deeply Rooted Dance Theater pays tribute to legendary musician, composer, arranger and record producer Quincy Jones with a new work, titled “Q After Dark.”

The 10-member professional company is teaming with nearly the same number of singers and musicians for its largest-scale offering ever as part of the outdoor summer series. Performances continue July 21 at Palmer Park and July 28 at the South Shore Cultural Center, the latter featuring a slightly longer program and additional musical forces.

While these productions on open-air stages don’t allow for the same polished feel of an indoor performance venue with tightly controlled lighting and scenic effects, artistic director Nicole Clarke-Springer believes these settings have their own distinctive appeal.

“What I’m excited by,” she said, “is the idea of having that outdoor-festival feel to it, where everyone can bring their picnic baskets and blankets and just enjoy dance under the stars. And let that be environment and speak for itself.”

Deeply Rooted marked its 25th anniversary last year as one of Chicago’s top dance companies, with a distinctive contemporary style that melds ballet and modern dance with African and African American dance.

“We work to be clean technicians in our artistry,” Clarke-Springer said, “but our niche is that we have incredible storytellers. Yes, we are a Black dance company, but we allow a space for everyone to see themselves inside the stories that we tell.”

What also sets the company apart is its unusually tight-knit artistic leadership team, which besides Clarke-Springer includes associate artistic director Gary Abbott, rehearsal director Joshua L. Ishmon, and creative/executive director Kevin Iega Jeff.

“We all have our roles and our lanes,” Clarke-Springer said. “Having this structure allows me freedom and doesn’t bind me and weigh me down with the charge of doing everything. It allows us all to have a voice and a space.”

Deeply Rooted Dance Theater dancers rehearse at the Mayfair Arts Center.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

In the case of “Q After Dark,” the four dance creators decided to pay tribute to Jones, an 89-year-old South Chicago native and musical polymath. He has worked with such musical giants as Ella Fitzgerald, Lesley Gore, Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson, and has composed nearly 40 movie scores, including his Academy Award-nominated music for “In Cold Blood” (1967).

The team listened to hundreds of songs associated with Jones and put together a line-up of the ones that were most resonant to them and fit together coherently, dividing the choreographic responsibilities among them.

The featured selections include Jackson’s “Human Nature” from “Thriller,” which Jones produced; “Birdland,” which was included on Jones’ 1989 album, “Back on the Block”; and “Summer in the City,” a Lovin’ Spoonful song for which Jones created a Grammy Award-winning instrumental arrangement in 1973.

Instead of a clear, defined narrative, this dance work consists of a series of after-hours vignettes.

“It doesn’t have a strong theme of ‘this is what the story is,'” Clarke-Singer said, “but there are multiple stories inside of it, and this is a community that you get to experience through Quincy Jones.”

Singers and musicians Yohan Stevenson (from left), Tina Jenkins Crawley, Nashon Holloway, Justin Dillard (on piano) and Steve Manns (on bass) rehearse for “Q After Dark.”

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

To bring the Jones-related songs alive, Deeply Rooted turned to Sam Thousand, who became connected to the company through previous work with Ishmon, including a 2018 show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago titled “Redefining BLACK.”

Thousand, who moved to Chicago in 2009 to study at Columbia College and has lived here since, has in many ways tried to emulate Jones’ varied musical career, serving as an instrumentalist, arranger and producer. “I’m trying to really fulfill my purpose as a creator, and I think that is what Quincy Jones does,” he said.

Thousand performs with and leads the ensemble of accompanying musicians and singers that he assembled for this project, and he arranged the Jones-related selections, creating what he half-kiddingly calls a “Quincy Jones symphony.”

After concluding this project, Deeply Rooted will take part in two more outdoor dance programs this summer, ending with the Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project: “Reclamation” on Aug. 27 in Millennium Park. Then the company takes a break before opening its 2022-23 season in the Auditorium Theatre in November.

Meanwhile, Thousand is already looking forward to his next project with Deeply Rooted.

“I’m just honored to call them family,” he said, “and also to be able to do a show such as this, which I know will lead to more opportunities.”

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