“Who Wants to See That?” — “that” being old people dancing — is an actual song in the new “Gotta Dance,” a Broadway-bound musical which wrapped up its Chicago tryout Jan. 17 at the Bank of America Theatre. Based on the true story of an NBA team’s oldster hip-hop squad, the show promotes the radical idea that seniors be paid for dancing in public. And in truth, the two best reasons to see it are Georgia Engel, 67, and Nancy Ticotin, 57.
Prejudices peculiar to our culture and to certain dance forms are what dictate that performers be young. But that misguided notion might be changing.
Taking a step in that direction, Michelle Kranicke of Chicago’s Zephyr Dance has curated what may be the world’s first dance festival dedicated to artists age 50 and older. Running Thursday through Jan. 31 at Links Hall, the aMID festival is intended to “expand the definition of virtuosity,” Kranicke says. Among the revered performers are Deborah Hay, Bebe Miller and former Chicagoan Bob Eisen.
Two years ago Kranicke, 53, had an “aha” moment when she ran across an essay, “The Aching Body in Dance,” by Yvonne Rainer, an experimental Judson Church performer of the ’60s. In it, the 80-year-old wrote with great glee about her recent performances in “Trio A: Geriatric With Talking,” calling it a “new form of avant-garde dance” and adding that “the aging body need not be judged as inadequate or inferior if it can no longer jump through hoops.”
Riffing on Rainer’s manifesto, Kranicke says that in today’s dance world, “with all the different conversations going on about gender, mixed-ability dance, different ethnicities, [the aging dancer] is where the conversation is moving. I wanted to bring my ideas and my heroes into that. When I was awarded the curatorial residence at Links, one of my first thoughts was to contact my heroes and see if they were interested — and they were!”
Like most dancers, Kranicke says, she has “physical issues, chronic aches and pains. I’ve confronted my own shifting corporal abilities.” Specifically, she says, she’s less able to jump: “Going up is not so bad — it’s the landing that’s a bit tricky.” When she was younger, she adds, “I could travel quickly across the floor in a complicated sequence of jumps and footwork. That’s just not possible anymore — well, let’s say some days it’s more possible than others.
“But letting go of that has been freeing, because then I go down other paths choreographically,” she says. “That’s been eye-opening, these new frontiers I’ve been able to discover as an artist.”
Kranicke does sometimes still include phrases tough for her to perform. “If I feel that an intense jumping sequence moves the work forward, then I make a decision that it will be there and the younger dancers will execute it,” she says. “But then where am I? Am I with them onstage? What is my relationship with them? Do I leave? Is my movement a direct counter to their movement? Does it reflect it in a different energetic sense than jumping? Those questions are exciting.”
Like Kranicke, who’ll perform with Zephyr in both lineups, most of aMID’s mature artists will dance with their juniors, tackling just those issues. The exception is Hay, performing a new solo in the first lineup, which also includes Eisen and Cynthia Oliver; the second features Miller, Smith/Wymore Disappearing Acts and Pranita Jain.
Though Kranicke didn’t ask the older dancers to perform with younger ones, she admits she hoped they would. “I didn’t put any limits on what they could show or give them any kind of direction,” she says. “But it was my hope they’d occupy the stage with a different body type, maybe younger. Then the two body types can occupy the same place, and what they project is of equal value in the aesthetic, the artistry.”
In fact, older dancers can be much more impressive than younger ones, as anyone can attest who’s seen international stars Soledad Barrio, Susanne Linke or local greats like Ayako Kato, Shirley Mordine and the late Nana Shineflug.
Virtuosity isn’t just gasp-inducing jumps or insane flexibility. “It also exists in an ability to command your attention onstage,” Kranicke says. “There’s a knowledge, an embedded physical understanding, of what it means to go out there and allow yourself to be seen — and be compelling. When I see a more mature performer, I’m riveted by just that.”
Like Rainer, whose call to arms acknowledges that “aging is the ultimate goal and hurdle,” Kranicke says that the aMID festival is about “the versatility, the expansive thinking, the creativity that comes with a long practice. The work I’m doing now is so much richer than what I could have done 20 years ago, just because of my lived experience, working week in and week out, year in and year out. That’s what I love about these artists: They continually work and expand and redefine. You can’t go around it. You’ve got to go through it.”