South Chicago Dance Theatre growing by leaps and bounds

If you have never heard of the South Chicago Dance Theatre, it’s not surprising.

The company was formed just five years ago, and founder and executive artistic director Kia S. Smith admits that public recognition has not always kept up with its explosive growth. But that should change substantially May 20 when the company presents its first performance at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, one of the city’s leading arts venues.

“We do want to expand our audience base,” Smith remembers thinking a year or so ago when she began looking toward an appearance in the Millennium Park theater, “and the Harris Theater is so central in the city that it would give us the opportunity for more people just to know that we exist.”

The program, titled “An Evening with South Chicago Dance Theatre: Celebrating Five Years,” features five world premieres by a varied group of choreographers, including Smith, who was a 2021 choreography fellow at Jacob’s Pillow, a prestigious dance festival and school in Becket, Mass.

“The celebration of diverse voices is very central to what we do and who we are,” she said.

The Chicago native imagined running her own dance company since she was a child, and she was finally able to that make that dream a reality in 2017. And there was little doubt as to where she would establish it.

“I have a lot of connections to the city’s South Side,” Smith said. “My great-grandmother actually came here during the Great Migration and lived in the South Chicago area, and, so, I just have a passion, I guess, for the South Side of the city.”

The still-young organization does not yet have its own quarters. For now, it is in residence at the Hyde Park School of Dance, which has provided space for a couple of years on an in-kind basis. “That’s where I trained in high school,” Smith said. “That’s kind of like my dance family.”

South Chicago Dance has multiple facets, starting with its professional dance company, which consists of four dancers on a 44-week contract and guest artists, as well as an emerging artist program. In all, 12 dancers will take part in the May 20 program.

Choreographer Wade Schaaf (far left) rehearses members of the South Chicago Dance Theatre, including dancer Kim Davis (center, aloft), at the company’s rehearsal studio inside the Hyde Park School of Dance.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Like the variety of approaches she seeks in choreographers, she wants company to be diverse as well. “When I’m choosing dancers,” Smith said, “I don’t like people to look the same or dance the same.”

Lourdes Taylor, a Chicago native who got her early training at the Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center, joined the company as an emerging artist in 2021-22 and hopes to return. “It’s been great to work with Kia,” she said. “She has a really unique style and commitment to her own fresh voice, but she loves the way that so many of us — and we’re all quite different — interpret her movement and give it our own style.”

In addition to its performing troupe, the organization hosts the annual South Chicago Dance Festival, which is tentatively scheduled for September this year, and sponsors educational programs in 11 public schools and a youth training company.

During the first two years of the organization, Smith covered its start-up costs with some help from family and friends. The company began receiving foundational and donor support in its third year when it had an annual budget of $80,000. That figure doubled to $160,000 the following year, and its 2021-22 budget has soared to about $400,000.

Right from the start, Smith has had high artistic aspirations for the company that go beyond establishing simply trying to find a niche in Chicago dance scene. “When I think about South Chicago Dance Theatre,” she said, “I think about it from a global perspective, and so whenever I’m making new work or commissioning artists, I also think: How would this piece look on the world stage? It’s so much bigger to me than Chicago or myself or even the city’s South Side.”

Such talk of a global dimension to the company’s work is more than words. As part of Choreographic Diplomacy, its cultural-partnership initiative, it performed in South Korea in November 2019 and the Netherlands in March.

But thinking internationally does not mean the company has not fostered strong local ties. Smith has received support from other members of the Chicago dance community such as Nan Giordano, artistic director of the Giordano Dance Chicago.

“We love the community,” Smith said, “but I just don’t to try to fit into the community necessarily. I want to have just our own unique path and way of doing things and try to be more innovative and pioneering.”

One way she hopes to make the company more experimental and distinctive is her development of what she calls “dance opera,” a kind of cross-disciplinary work that fuses movement, live sound and scenic and projection design into a “holistic performance experience.” South Chicago Dance is slated to present the first such work at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Fall 2023.

Choreographer Wade Schaaf and Kia Smith, the executive artistic director of the South Chicago Dance Theatre, are photographed at the Hyde Park School of Dance.|

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The May 20 lineup won’t have dance opera, but it brings together five new works each created in a different style, starting with her piece, “In Lieu of Flowers,” a duet she created after her father died, that explores the stages of grief. “The work helped me stay in touch with myself and keep myself together,” said Smith, who serves as the company’s resident choreographer.

In their first collaboration with South Chicago Dance, Wade Schaaf, founder of Chicago Repertory Ballet, has assembled a 12-minute contemporary ballet for seven dancers titled “Coeurs S?par?s (Separated Hearts),” which was inspired in part by the choreographer’s “kinship” with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

“A lot of it is based around the idea that you may be going through a challenging period,” Schaaf said. “For me, I call it broken-heartedness and the journey you can have while having that sense, so the full range of human experience — joy, sadness and connection with others.”

Also on the program is Stephanie Martinez’s jazzy “On a Lark,” Crystal Michelle’s Afro-modern “Lit-anies” and Ron De Jes?s’ “HYbr:ID Line.”

“The dancers are literally flying through the air,” Smith said of De Jesus’ evening-ending creation. “It’s a really sleek and just powerful work.”

Members of the South Chicago Dance Theatre rehearse at the Hyde Park School of Dance for the upcoming “An Evening with the South Chicago Dance Theatre: Celebrating Five Years.”|

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

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