Growing up around Chicago, it never occurred to me that the artists my parents took me to see were self-produced or had ever worked to create their own opportunities. Hubbard Street had to have always been HUBBARD STREET, Second City had to have always been SECOND CITY, and the artists in the galleries? I was sure those were their first paintingsand their place in that establishment had been set for them since birth. I never really thought about the process—the building, the struggle, the sweat—but it has since become the focus of my family-centered work.
More than five years ago, I co-founded Core Project with fellow Columbia College M.F.A. candidate Matt Pierce. As one tends to do in graduate school, I was looking for a way to increase the volume of my voice. I was a choreographer and dancer but felt weighed down by the dance studio, competition, and business-plan vibe of the dance world. I liked to move and communicate in ways that didn’t win you trophies at competitions but that, I felt, got to the heart of the matter. I had recently fallen in love with the idea of interdisciplinary art while attending a production of Jay-Son Dance Company, which loosely incorporated video into its dance story, and Matt’s writing and video work attracted me immediately. I knew we could use our individual work to complement and translate each other’s messages. Matt’s work often speaks of culture and cultural clash and mesh, while mine time and time again comes back to family. Together, we named, created, and built Core Project Chicago.
Our first collaborative performances were self-produced. Light bulbs attached to dimmers were strung from the rafters of Nicolle Wood’s The Galaxie. Dancers were acquired through various degrees of separation. Music included the live performance of Dax Tran-Caffee on accordion, water-filled glasses, and more. Video work was a collage of cityscapes mixed with elements of nature. Our evening-length work entitled Hint of It explored how in urban culture we can all be so close in proximity but so far away in spirit. The production felt like some wonderfully grassroots coffeehouse exhibition. My dad even commented that he thought he should snap not clap afterward. Audience members took breaks at the bar, performers and audience members alike explored the video gallery, and by the scheduled end of the evening, musicians had us all dancing and sweating into the night. The success of the early projects solidified what I had started to suspect—that from collaboration blooms creativity. As a new company, the first few projects brought us extremely close in support of a common mission: to push the boundaries of storytelling in Chicago and beyond. Beyond Chicago city limits, yes, but also beyond the proscenium setting, beyond audience isolation, and beyond the sole "Artistic Director as creator" model.
Matt and I were able to talk through every step of our informal, honest, and overly ambitious productions. His perfectionism complemented my hit-and-run decision-making to create something new for all involved. While I pushed him not to talk around a subject, he pushed me to see the depth and importance of each moment. Personally, I began to find homes in self-production, multimedia exploration, and collaboration—each more important than the one before.
At this time, using video and original audio became the most integral part of my artistic process through my studies at Columbia College Chicago and my work with Core. I am as inspired by manipulating bodies on a computer screen in order to complement bodies onstage as I am spending time in the dance studio. I find that people’s personal truths—as dancers, performers, parents, students, etc.—are revealed in the moments between their stories. When they pause to take a drag of their cigarette or look left to recall a moment or sigh deeply to catch their breath, they are revealing something about themselves. It is through capturing these moments via video recording that we create movement and learn about the honesty in human gesture. My hope is that in these productions and presentations of what is essentially the process of making a “dance,” performers and audience members alike can find commonality and give themselves permission to ponder. It is amazing to think the same technology that takes me away from my deep personal interactions is so vital to my choreography.
Over the next three years, Core Project became Core Project Chicago, a nonprofit organization, producing inspiring works of and with local Chicago artists, including Nicole Gifford, Mary Tisa, Misty DeBerry, Hope Goldman. We also produced Going Dutch, two evenings of female voices in choreography, performance and installation art, featuring international artists like Kim Neal Nofsinger and Stefanie Batten Bland. Every project, every move, every piece has collaboration at its source.
As a company, we have not taken any steps individually. Our dancers and contributors have shifted and changed, relocated and come back, gone to have families and create varied futures, but the core of Core has remained the same. Now with Executive Director Megan Beseth, we work to create collaborative work across the miles. The collaboration may simply lie in putting a variety of voices on a stage in a given night, not allowing it to become the “Erin” or “Matt” show, or, as in my Mother Tongues project, months and now years of conversation, interviews, research, travel and evolution of performance working with audio, video and dance artists and their mothers.
We are now at this crazy five-year (almost six-year) place. When you first start something, anything, people come out in droves to support you. It is new and exciting. You never know when the next thing will be, so they’re there. As you grow—and luckily our audience has—you want your scope, point of view, production value, etc., to grow as well. Then, you arrive at this five-year place. You have the interest to go bigger, but the funds...not so much. Even when you're no longer constantly losing or breaking even, saving money for the “business” has its own expenses. This is why organizations and small businesses often break at the five-year point. We have reached this point through years of dedicated dancers donating time and space and private fundraising. We have thrown “I Heart Core” parties, held bowling tournaments, completed letter-writing campaigns, received matching donations from our supporters working for employers with those sorts of programs, worked to sell tickets to our performances, and most recently enlisted the assistance of Kickstarter, receiving $2500 in support of our summer tour and outreach. Fundraising is on my mind as much, if not more, than the work itself. We continue to wait for, and work towards, that first large grant to come through and external board-building efforts to bear fruit. Funding is a constant and high hurdle, especially at this five-year point. However, this is also an exciting moment to celebrate. Five years! Holy crap! We will enter our sixth season with all new principal artists from our start date years ago. We have produced and performed all over Illinois, as well as in Arizona, Minnesota, Colorado, Missouri, California, Tennessee, and (this winter) Florida. And what we’re most proud of are the free dance, movement, and video art workshops we have been able to offer to students of all ages in all those communities as part of our ever-growing outreach initiative.
Something that some days is easier and more exciting than others is to just keep going: keep making, keep reading, keep showing, keep talking, keep fighting, keep dancing. Just don’t stop. We will make mistakes that need to be made and learn valuable lessons that need to be learned, but don’t let it all be so precious that you can’t share it—the good, the bad, and (yikes!) the ugly. We all need to keep talking and collaborating. Core Project will. I will. I hope all the storytellers out there will jump that five-year hurdle and keep telling their stories, by whatever means necessary.
Erin Rehberg is Founder and Artistic Director of Core Project Chicago. In 2001, she became a founding member of, and rehearsal mistress for, Kim Nofsinger’s Shelter Dance Repertoire and is now the Associate Director. Recently she has performed the choreography of Stefanie Batten Bland and E.E. Balcos, and has danced with Jay-Son/Tisa Dance Company, Nicole Gifford Dance, Jennifer Sandoval, and others. Her choreography has been seen in Beyond Boundaries (Grand Junction, CO), Dance Chicago, Breaking Bounds Dance Festival (Phoenix, AZ), Manifest Urban Arts Festival (Chicago, IL), and elsewhere, and she has produced site-specific work throughout the Chicago area. Through Core Project she has curated a variety of inter-arts happenings, working closely with artists across the country regarding common themes. She is currently on faculty at the Dance Theatre of Tennessee’s conservatory, adjunct faculty at Middle Tennessee State University, and just completed her first summer on faculty for the Tennessee Governor’s School for the Arts.
Written in Fall 2011.