As a childhood resident of the Southwest Chicago neighborhood of Beverly, Rena Butler recalls visiting friends and family in Englewood and other nearby areas. She would sometimes hear loud bangs and didn’t know if they were fireworks or gun shots.
“If I’m 12 years old and having that already in my brain,” she said, “it’s super-traumatic for a young kid growing up who should just be concerned with popsicles and running around in the grass and playing cops and robbers.”
Such memories are at the heart of “A Tale of Two,” a new work on film she created to open Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s 43rd season. It is the first of five offerings by choreographers with ties to the company that will be premiered online in 2020-21 because COVID-19 restrictions make in-person performances impossible.
Butler’s film, which incorporates 15 Hubbard Street and guest dancers and music by Darryl Joseph, is expected to run about 25 minutes. Following its debut at 6 p.m. Oct. 22, it will be streamed again at 6 p.m. Oct. 24 and 2 p.m. Oct. 25.
Because of Coronavirus protocols, nothing about creating, rehearsing or performing “A Tale of Two” was “normal.” The choreographer had originally hoped to work with members of GoodKids MadCity, an anti-gun violence group composed of young people of color from the South and West Sides of Chicago, and share their stories.
But the pandemic made such direct interaction impossible. So as the title suggests, she pivoted to making a dance film that explores Chicago’s “extreme cultural dichotomy” between the affluence of the Magnificent Mile and overlooked neighborhoods racked by inequity, poverty and violence.
To emphasize the traumatic impact of this division on children, each section of the work is introduced with “Humpty Dumpty” and other nursery rhymes with “dark implications” that make clear, as Butler put it, she isn’t dealing with “sunshine and rainbows.”
“I think it will be challenging for people to see Hubbard Street in this way,” said Alysia Johnson, one of the film’s dancers. “We’ve always been truth tellers, but we’ve never had to do it this hardcore.”
Butler’s love of dance began in childhood, when, inspired by Janet Jackson and the rock star’s music videos, she mounted little productions for family gatherings. She went on to study choreography as part of her dance studies at the State University of New York at Purchase, and was later mentored by Kyle Abraham when she was a member of his company, A.I.M.
The award-winning 31-year-old choreographer, who ended her three-year tenure as a dancer with Hubbard Street with this project, has created works for such companies and schools as BalletX, Boston Dance Theater and the Joffrey Ballet School in New York City.
After selling Hubbard Street on her idea for this work, she originally planned to shoot it herself on her iPhone. But company leaders were able to come up with funding for a filmmaker, and Johnson suggested Chicago native Talia Koylass. The two were dance students at the same time in New York.
Koylass, 25, was thrilled when Butler invited her to take part. “To get to do something in Chicago for Chicago by Chicagoans — all of her collaborators are native Chicagoans and Black — it was just a really special environment that she created,” she said.
In a sharp departure from how Hubbard Street usually works, two weeks of rehearsals were done via Zoom, and the film was shot outside in August in just four days. With help from Koylass, Butler scouted playgrounds and other locations in Humboldt Park at 1400 N. Sacramento on the West Side, and along the Bloomingdale Trail or the 606.
And if that wasn’t challenging enough, all the dancers had to be properly distanced in the film except for those who room together, and some of the scenes were shot at night, requiring a gaffer to provide lighting.
“It was a unifying experience for the company,” said Adam McGaw, who is beginning his second season as a full member of the company. “We were all being pushed out of our comfort zones to move on apparatuses, on concrete, at different times of the day. I think people rallied around what Rena was trying to do.”
But for McGaw, the best part might have been simply the chance to dance and move together with his fellow Hubbard Street members. “That was something we had really been missing,” he said. “It was a really long summer. It helped normalize this thing that we’re going through, and it gave me hope that things will get better.”
Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.