Finding what matters
Two choreographers-to-be test-drive their futures.
“I’m thinking about naming my piece Dignity,” says 17-year-old Shawntara Mathis, a senior at Bronzeville’s DuSable Leadership Academy. “It’s about how to think more critically about the things that we do, and using our strength to come together and be one body and one sound.” Whatever name she settles on, her original choreography will be one of five dances premiering at the Museum of Contemporary Art Sunday 18.
Mathis fills her days with dance. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday she takes class and rehearses with the After School Matters Dance Ensemble at Gallery 37 Center for the Arts; Friday evenings she trains on scholarship in the Joffrey Ballet’s Exelon Strobel Step-Up Program; and on Sundays, she dances at two services at Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street, which she’s done since the age of seven. “Saturday, I get my sleep,” she says. “I’m like, ‘Ma, don’t wake me up!’?” Mathis starts her weekend with a ballet class—90 minutes at the Joffrey—“and then I go back home and pass out.”
We’re sitting with Mathis and Luis Vazquez in one of Gallery 37’s practice rooms; there’s just enough space for the three of us, an upright piano and a few stacks of extra chairs. Like Mathis, Vazquez is 17, in the middle of a creation (his first, to her ten) and hesitant about its working title.
“Probably Mourn…or Mourning. There are six dancers in my piece; three of them are mourners and three of them are ghosts of the people they have to let go.”
Vazquez’s parents, retired championship Latin ballroom dancers, started him out on waltz and foxtrot classes, but while movement was in his blood, their style wasn’t. “My teachers would always tell me that I was the frame for the girl’s picture, but I wanted to be more than just a frame.” He became interested in ballet and contemporary dance during his sophomore year, then learned about After School Matters.
The ensemble, co-directed by Kari Becker and Amy Wilkinson since 2004, is one of many job-training and outreach programs under ASM’s nonprofit umbrella; the organization offers teens opportunities to study lifeguarding, robotics, journalism and dozens of other career possibilities in settings run like the real thing. Becker and Wilkinson are passionate about how their project both gives kids a chance to burn energy and see dance professions as a viable choice.
“The seriousness, commitment and discipline that it takes validates choosing art as a career,” Wilkinson says. “They’ll dance in their bedrooms or wherever because it’s fun,” but by the end of ASM’s ten-week program (it offers four sessions per year), “they realize it’s work. Hard work.”
When we peek in on rehearsals, Vazquez is working out details of how three duos—one seated, one standing and one leaping—weave together. Mathis is just feet away, counting her dance’s steps to the beat of the music Vazquez is using. “My mom keeps telling me, ‘School comes first, really be on that, then think about dance.’ It’s a battle,” she says, “but I’m learning to take risks, especially when I know they’re risks that will benefit me.”
After School Matters Dance Ensemble shares its showcase with ASM’s Hip Hop Culture apprenticeship program Sunday 18 at the Museum of Contemporary Art.