Up next in our series of interviews with notable, in-the-know locals: Katie McCann, founding director of Dance in the Parks. Their first show will be at Ada Park in Morgan Park on July 11; the last one is August 5.
So what exactly is Dance in the Parks?
It’s essentially a gateway experience to professional dance. We do a portable, outdoor dance concert, and take it to different parks throughout the city on the South, North, and West Sides. Chicago has a really brilliant dance community, but it’s focused on theaters because that’s how we’ve always done it—with lights and backdrops. That limits the audiences that can get to see it. We should be building bridges to audiences outside the usual theater district and economic class that knows about such things.
What does each performance look like?
We have youth partners in each neighborhood that perform with us between numbers. They bring their own stuff, and we have nothing to do with training them or choreographing them. They’re as local as we can make it—we find dance programs that are in our performance communities so it’s different in every park, and we try to build awareness of the dance that’s happening in each locality. We also give away tickets to other professional dance programs in the city, because places like Broadway in Chicago and the Joffrey donate tickets to us.
Anything new this year?
Joshua Blake Carter choreographed our finale this year, and we’re going to try and keep it in our repertory for several years, so we can have the same grand finale that everybody can come back to and remember. The goal starting next year is to incorporate a youth partner component, so the kids will be around the stage while the company is doing the finale.
How do you adapt dance to the outdoors?
I’m a believer in the idea that constraints engender creativity. In a theater, the lights go down and there’s only the one thing to be focusing on. For us, there’s traffic, there’s kids—name anything that’s going on in a public park, and that’s happening at the same time. Our choreographers have to make each dance interesting on its own, and be able to pull focus from public life. And the dancers have this added level of making sure they’re maintaining everyone else’s focus. We constantly have kids coming up with elbows on the stage. So while you’re trying to make this a really interesting piece of art, please don’t kick the baby.
What’s your background in dance?
I am predominantly ballet trained. Obviously when you grow up you learn all things—ballet, jazz, modern—but I am a classically trained dancer, and I spent three years in a ballet company in Lexington, Kentucky. That’s where I had my first experience doing concerts similar to this.
How did that inspire Dance in the Parks?
They built a stage around a tree in this beautiful park in downtown Lexington, and we threw a show together in a month and danced in the humid, soggy weather. It was awesome. People brought their kids and their dogs and their picnic blankets. Kids didn’t have to sit still in their seats and they could still see. They got up and they danced along, or they got up and hung out on the swings until it seemed interesting again. Then I came up to Chicago as a freelancer and was like, “What is going on that Chicago doesn’t have any kind of dance performances going on in the summer?” Everybody used to go on hiatus in the summer and there were all these dancers looking for work. And we have this huge Park District! I was like, “Someone should be connecting these dots. I think I can do it.”