No one can accuse Rodney Gustafson of being forgetful when it comes to great dancers and great ballets. Gustafson, whose State Street Ballet company celebrates its 20th year of continuous operation with a performance this Saturday at the Granada, first heard about Scheherazade some 15 years back. The world-premiere ballet by Autumn Eckman, which State Street Ballet will perform this weekend, was an idea that the company’s managing director, Tim Mikel, first kicked around when Eckman was a young dancer who had then just joined the State Street ranks. Since then, Mikel had the chance to expand on his thoughts by composing a complete libretto, and Eckman has become one of the top choreographers in Chicago, a hotbed of modern dance and contemporary ballet. Over the years, Eckman and Mikel stayed in touch, and Gustafson followed Eckman’s rise, which eventually led her to a position as the assistant artistic director and resident choreographer of Giordano Dance Chicago. When State Street Ballet’s 20th-anniversary season appeared on the horizon, Gustafson took advantage of the occasion to make this long-standing dream of collaboration a reality. By commissioning Scheherazade, he realized multiple goals in a single, bold move. For Eckman, it’s a chance to return to a city she loves to show what she has learned and what she can do. For Mikel, it’s the reward for sticking with his vision, which brings a new approach to the renowned Tales of the Arabian Nights, one in which the focus is primarily on the Queen of the Desert and the Traveler. For Gustafson and his talented troupe of dancers, it’s an opportunity to demonstrate both the deep resources of creativity that exist within their organization — after all, the work is entirely the product of two of their own members, plus the beautiful and mesmerizing music of Rimsky-Korsakov — and a chance to revel in a style of dance they have pioneered, one which is physical, sensual, and modern yet firmly rooted in the discipline of classical ballet.
“I know the company,” Eckman told me by telephone last week as she was preparing to leave Chicago for Santa Barbara. “I know their strengths, their versatility, and above all, I know what they are capable of.” In regard to the balance of ballet technique and contemporary dance moves that runs throughout Scheherazade, Eckman says, “I have an equal background in both, from set design to steps, and I feel like this piece demonstrates the fact that I have developed my own distinctive movement vocabulary within that range of expression.” For this production, she and Mikel agreed that the emphasis should be on making something that’s new but not necessarily modernized. “This is a new chapter, and a completely new story created from the text, but it’s definitely still a fairy tale,” said Eckman, who will be giving a pre-show talk immediately before Saturday’s Granada performance.
Eckman arrives in the wake of several recent triumphs in Chicago, including premiering an entirely different work back in March 2014. “Mist,” which pairs dancers with a large vocal ensemble that sings contemporary classical compositions onstage during the performance, was rapturously received on a program that paired it with another recent Eckman dance, 2012’s “Jolt,” which celebrates her love of coffee. “I’ve been fortunate that a lot of things I’ve done recently have been firsts,” Eckman told me. On Saturday, expect a vibrant first that’s been 15 years in the making.
Scheherazade, along with William Soleau’s “Tango Rain,” will be performed by State Street Ballet at the Granada Theatre (1213 State St.) on Saturday, October 25, at 7:30 p.m. For tickets and information, call (805) 899-2222 or visit granadasb.org.