Hedwig Dances Keynote: June 7, 2024

Thank you, Amanda. And thank all of YOU, because without your support, Hedwig Dances would not exist. And I have to thank my own Jan, Jan Hieggelke, who is here tonight. She’s been my partner in life and in business for more than forty years, and is responsible for everything Newcity is today. 

A couple things before I start. 

Tonight is a very special night celebrating a very special dance company, one that has thrived for thirty-nine years. And it is also a night to honor two very special individuals for their contributions to dance. Later in the program, the Dance Advocacy Award will be presented to Ken Bowen, Lighting Designer. In addition to his work with Hedwig and other dance companies in Chicago, Ken is an educator, and for all of that we are most grateful. >> And the Dance Heritage Award will be presented to Alison Hinderliter, in honor of her work with the Chicago Dance History Project. Newcity recently worked with Alison on a story about the iconic Chicago nightclub Mister Kelly’s—have you seen the exhibit she curated at the Newberry Library? Amazing. 

OK. Let’s get started. 

As a journalist, I do most of my talking with my fingers, on a keyboard, and don’t get in front of audiences like this very often. But I’ve been in the audience enough to know that it is best to start with a joke. But I do not know any dance jokes. So I thought, Artificial Intelligence! A.I!  And so I asked ChatGPT to tell me a joke about a dancer. 

Here it goes, get ready:

Why did the dancer go to jail?

Because he pirouetted too close to the Barre!

Hmm… I figured probably because I’ve never been a dancer myself, I don’t get that one, so I rephrased my question and tried again. And ChatGPT responded:

Why did the ballerina bring a broom to her performance? 

Because she heard it was a sweepstakes!

OK I give up.

In any case, this spring, we attended a performance of Hedwig Dances. Company member and choreographer Paula Sousa premiered her new work, “Under My Thumbs,” a powerful, disturbing look at a world in the perhaps near future, with Artificial Intelligence at its center. It was cinematic, dystopian and singular. 

And it was made with AI. Sort of. In the talkback after the show, Sousa described how she set out to create the work in collaboration with ChatGPT. She said she’d asked it for creative guidance and then rejected all of its suggestions as wanting. 

I am breaking no news in telling you the fear of AI is ripping through the culture right now. But it can’t dance. And it sure can’t tell a joke, either. 

The power of Hedwig Dances is that of human collaboration, of reaching for inspiration across art forms and oceans to create expressions using the human body as a creative instrument. >> Pretty AI-proof, right? 

That does not mean, however, that dance as a cultural force is not without its challenges. First and foremost among them is financial. We live in a world full of dire problems, and it’s always the easy way to decide that something else is more urgent than the arts. That something else needs our attention, our money. But the reality is that the arts are a vital way for all of us—rich, poor, Black, white, brown, queer, straight—to understand, to process, to get through the daily trauma that the world throws at us. Food and shelter may keep us alive, but culture gives us a reason to live!

As you know, tonight is first and foremost a fundraiser. Your very presence here is already a movement in that direction, but if you can, please do even more in one of the many ways you’ll hear about that will help this very special dance company continue to thrive. 

Earlier this week, I invited the readers of Newcity to share a story about the value of dance in their life. 

Greg Cameron, the president of the Joffrey Ballet wrote, “My mantra is ‘we dance before we walk—and sing before we talk!’ He then recommended I sing and dance instead of talking tonight, which certainly would have been better for laughs than anything A.I. cooked up.

Also, you might know Ina Pinkney, Chicago’s Breakfast Queen. This is her story. 

I had polio at eighteen months and by the time I was three, I was already angry about the pain and the exercising required of me. My mother took me to the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in the hopes of inspiring me to keep exercising, and when the curtain  opened, I fell in love with Maria Tallchief and I fell in love with the ballet.

After that, when my father did my daily exercises with me and I protested, he would quietly say, “Maria Tallchief wouldn’t say ‘no more’.”  

And I kept on. 

Whatever mobility I regained was a direct result of her name being spoken. The magic of this story is that I got to meet her before I closed my restaurant. I sat across from her and told her that story. And we both cried. 

Hedwig Dances is thirty-nine years old this year. Next year will be the big four-oh and big plans are afoot! I cannot tell you how amazing an accomplishment that is, and how important their place is in Chicago’s world-class dance community. 

Newcity is just one year younger, at thirty-eight, and over the years writing about dance has become a core part of our identity, so much so that today we cover it every week, more so than any other publication in Chicago.

You don’t get to thirty-eight or thirty-nine years without earning some scars along the way, and I expect we at Newcity share many of them with Jan Bartoszek and her collaborators. But we’ve all made it this far, and we’re stronger than ever. 

If you had asked me back in 1986 when we were starting out if I thought I’d still be at it nearly forty years later, I would have laughed. No way. I get bored way too easily. 

But here I am. And here is Hedwig Dances, too. 

Seeing, reading or watching a great work of art is not entertainment. >> It’s life.

When you open your eyes, ears and spirit to a night at Hedwig Dances, you’ll find yourself transformed, in ways both big and small. I can describe the nuts and bolts of what I see when I watch dance but I can’t describe what it is about dance that does this. It’s certainly not artificial intelligence. It’s spiritual intelligence. 

It’s just everything.