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The Chicago Choreographer Behind Smashing Pumpkins’ Reunion Tour

Ahead of the band’s hometown shows, Jessica Redish talks writing the dance moves that color the set’s backdrop.

Dance for “The Beginning is the End is the Beginning,” choreographed by Jessica Redish   Photo: Ethan M. Sigmon

The Smashing Pumpkins (minus bassist D’arcy Wretzky) have reunited for a world tour to commemorate the band’s 30th anniversary, and it’s a decidedly outsized affair. Over the last few weeks, the group has played three-hour, 31-song setlists with elaborate visuals, including specially filmed backdrops for certain numbers. They were shot by Linda Strawberry, who collaborates frequently with frontman Billy Corgan (she recently co-directed his short film “Pillbox") and feature dance sequences choreographed by Jessica Redish.

 

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Like Corgan, Redish is a native of Highland Park, where she founded and ran The Music Theatre Company from 2009 to 2015. Ahead of the Pumpkins’ hometown shows at the United Center on August 13 and 14, I spoke with Redish by phone about the tour visuals and how she connected with Corgan.

Which songs did you work with?

I did “The End Is the Beginning Is the End”; “For Martha” and “To Sheila,” both of which are from Adore; and then I did a bit of movement to “Bullet with Butterfly Wings.”

Redish, left, rehearses “To Sheila” with assistant Katie Rayle. Photo:Ethan M. Sigmon

The aesthetics remind me of the silent film-style of the music video for “Tonight, Tonight” crossed with a little Busby Berkeley. How would you describe your direction?

All of the visuals were overseen by the director, Linda Strawberry. She really spearheaded the vision along with Billy and set the tone. As a choreographer, I was asked to provide moments of movement representing — or you might say “quoting” — the late ’20s. They wanted the overhead shots in the vein of Busby Berkeley for a couple of the songs, including “The End Is the Beginning Is the End.”

I’m a big researcher, so I studied a lot of Berkeley’s work and what went into creating the images that we know so well, and then put my own spin on them. I think there’s a lot of feminine energy in the visuals. They’re almost entirely engendered by women, which I think is an interesting counter to the very masculine energy of the music.

Can you talk about the visuals for any of the other songs?

“For Martha" is the song that Billy wrote for his mother, and that’s kind of the one that almost feels like a piece of dance theater. The song is eight minutes long; I choreographed the back four minutes of it, and it’s basically the moment of her ascending to heaven. I wanted to know who she was — I’m tasked with bringing this woman, my friend’s mother, back to life for a few moments — so I combed through his LiveJournal. I got the sense that this woman was always in motion. And I know she suffered with mental illness. In this moment, which I think feels like a piece of theater, I sort of played with regret and pain, and I got the sense that this woman was not gonna go down without a fight. So that’s sort of this protracted moment of death, the moments before dying. And when I was making this, Rachel [Rockwell, the late Chicago theater director and choreographer] had just passed. I think Rachel’s in there, and my grandmother, and my friend Alana who passed, and Billy’s mom. It’s this amazing confluence of grand women who you’ll see on the screen.

Redish and dancer Alyx Andrushuk between takes of shooting “For Martha." Photo:Ethan M. Sigmon

How did your connection with Billy come about? I know you’re both from Highland Park, and he wrote a short musical for The Music Theatre Company a few years ago.

My board president at the time was very bold, and she went to Madame Zuzu’s, the tea shop that Billy had opened in Highland Park. She said, “You have to meet our artistic director.” And he gave her his email. A month or so later I emailed him and we met up in January 2013, the day I was opening “Sweet Charity” at Writers Theatre. He said, “What are you working on?” and I said, “I’m opening a show tonight,” and he said, “Can I come?” So then I’m calling up the Writers box office and saying, “Can I get an extra ticket tonight for Billy Corgan?”

We just began an artistic conversation that continues to this day. It felt very organic. We became kind of instant friends. I’ll be honest, I grew up listening to show tunes. I knew of his work, but I think we connected because I wasn’t speaking with him about the past. He’s become a truly positive artistic presence in my life.

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