Hubbard Street Dance Chicago may be the 36-year-old homegrown, renowned contemporary dance company that regularly brings in master choreographers from around the globe, tours worldwide and is beloved by audiences, but the value of sourcing locally certainly is not lost on the organization. HSDC also commits to the creative development of in-house artists: Primarily choreographers like Robyn Mineko Williams. The Urbaness snuck into a recent rehearsal to chat with the budding choreographer/veteran dancer, who’s setting her new work, Fluence
, on the company for their Fall Series.
“I was interested in seeing what else was out there, ways that I could stretch my love for dance and what other avenues I might be able to go down.”
The Chicago-born dancer has made her career in this town. After high school years spent on scholarship at Lou Conte Dance Studio (the school of HSDC), Robyn danced for River North Dance Chicago and eventually made her way to back to Hubbard Street for a 12-year tenure with the main company. The terms ‘home’ and ‘family’ come up frequently. “I respect the work and the people. I’m really happy that this is where I grew up.”
Now she’s quickly establishing a name for herself in dance making territory via HSDC and beyond. “When I left the company I really didn’t decide to focus solely on choreography or solely on dancing,” Robyn explains. “I just wanted to open up myself to new possibilities. When you’re a dancer, you are fully immersed in that specific world. I was interested in seeing what else was out there, ways that I could stretch my love for dance and what other avenues I might be able to go down.”
That willingness to explore new opportunities has brought Robyn’s work to several acclaimed national venues including the Kennedy Center and New York’s Joyce SoHo and locally to the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and soon to the city’s dance performance destination, the Harris Theater for Music & Dance. In fact, for a self-described newbie to the role of choreographer, her resume boasts an extensive and diverse array of commissions, awards, and acclaim. Most recently she was the recipient of the Princess Grace Foundation-USA’s Choreography Fellowship Award, a coveted honor for emerging U.S. artists given to just 2-3 choreographers annually. “It’s a wonderful honor and opportunity to meet other emerging artists and meet a new crowd of audience,” she says of the award. “I think it will open doors to keep working and exploring choreography that I really enjoy. I couldn’t be happier.”
Having played the role of dancer to countless choreographers over the years, she obviously knows her way around the studio and has discovered the approaches that work for her process. “Someone that I really loved the way he worked was [Finnish choreographer] Jorma Elo. He was just fun. He’s very much himself, and he would admit that he’s a little quirky. I really appreciated his trust of the dancers and keeping of a very focused atmosphere, but it never got negative. That’s where I’m the most open and useful. I try to incorporate that into my rehearsals.”
When we step into Robyn’s rehearsal with the company, dancers are already immersed in an afternoon of choreographic development in one of Hubbard Street Dance Center’s cavernous studios. They’re standing palm-to-palm and swiftly trading places and hands. Robyn is two weeks into her process and in the middle of building a seemingly complex structure that relies on a series of assigned movements and counts for each of the nine cast members. She’s well versed in working with this set of dancers as both performer and choreographer and allows their contributions to inform the creative path.
“The dancers are not only these incredible artists, but especially this group right now, also just awesome people. This is a really special time.”
“They are so smart and just unbelievable movers, and they’re so sensitive that automatically they make choices that are incredible. For me I just try to stay as alert as possible to catch those little things and see how I can weave them in.” Robyn notes that working with such a large cast has taken her out of her comfort zone but provides ample inspiration. “One thing that was really important for me working with the nine dancers is really just highlighting each of them as individuals. It’s a theme I’m very interested in: how these unique creatures have such unique beauty, but they can all come together to make this amazing community.”
Robyn also credits an undercurrent of support from her ongoing interdisciplinary collaborations (with fashion designer Hogan McLaughlin, composer Robert F. Haynes, and lighting designer Burke Brown) as equally inspiring to her artistic process. “It’s this team of people who are genius but also so patient with me and really don’t judge any wacko ideas that I have. I feel really comfortable with them.”
And the performers aren’t so bad either. “The dancers are not only these incredible artists, but especially this group right now, also just awesome people. This is a really special time. It’s a credit to [Artistic Director] Glenn [Edgerton]. That’s really important to him that he has a group of dancers that can work together and respect each other and learn from one another.”
What it comes down to for Robyn is the experiences that dance provides its audience. For this hometown artist, she’s begun to discover the global impact of her work through HSDC’s partnership with DanceMotions USA, a program run by the U.S. State Department and Brooklyn Academy of Music. “Part of the company went to North Africa and Spain and brought Recall
,” she says of her 2012 work for HSDC’s dance (e)volve new works festival
which later made its way into the company repertory. “I have these dancers from Morocco Facebook-ing me to explain their experience, and I have this one clip of Hubbard Street workshopping some of the Recall
material. The Moroccan dancers just go off and start improvising within this theme to the music. It’s incredible to me that anyone in Morocco has anything to do with me or has seen what I do, that I have--although distant--a connection.”
Regardless of locale, she wants to hear what you think. “I love to hear people’s spins on what they see. There’s no wrong answer in my opinion. If you hate it. If you love it. I don’t care. I think just showing up and being open to the experience of dance: I’m happy with that.”
Fluence at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s Fall Series, October 10-13 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance at Millennium Park. Find tickets here. Learn more about Robyn’s performance and choreography here.