Dancing with Darwin

Merritt Watts

What does a Northwestern graduate with a degree in history have to do with a dance theater company that uses everything from sonograms to marshmallows as props? Well, she founded it.

Julia Rhoads, Weinberg ’95, is the co-founder and artistic director of the dance theater company Lucky Plush.

Lucky Plush’s fall concert begins this weekend at the Vittum Theatre in Chicago. One of the dancers in the performance is another NU alumna Meghann Wilkinson, Communication ’03. The concert features two works by the company: “Endplay,” inspired by Samuel Beckett’s “Come and Go,” and the world premier of the work “Shift,” co-directed by Rhoads, about human physical response to texture.

“We like to make work that is concept-based, not just an abstract dance work,” said Rhoads, who enrolled in NU as a 20-year-old, after dancing with the San Francisco Ballet. The work of Lucky Plush can be considered a hybrid of dance, drama, and set design that incorporates theatrical conventions such as text, video and costuming into the performances.

“Endplay” is Lucky Plush’s interpretation of Samuel Beckett’s absurd short play “Come and Go.” Dancers perform to a recording of the 121-word script, which features three characters speaking in short sentences about a subject unknown to the audience. These interactions serve as the opening sequence for “Endplay.”

“(Samuel Beckett’s) plays speak to the human condition,” Rhoads said of Lucky Plush’s decision to use his plays. “‘Come and Go’ is about being lost in endless cycles of repetition and idiosyncratic games and rituals.”

Another performance in their fall concert, “Shift,” is a new work that explores the idea of textural changes in the body as a response to environment. Interactions between dancers are less about character and “human intentions” than about physical reaction to an exterior stimulus.

Wilkinson, who performs in both works, conveys the concept of textural change in “Shift” to the audience by imagining herself dancing in different elements.

“It was helpful to have images in my mind as I danced, like moving through water or air or a different physical texture,” Wilkinson said. “I think it will be a really beautiful experience for the audience.”

Lucky Plush got its start in 1999, when Rhoads’ performance group, XSIGHT! split up. Rhoads first joined XSIGHT! in 1995 after taking a modern dance class at NU taught by Brian Jeffery, the artistic director of XSIGHT!. Fellow XSIGHT! member Holly Rothschild shared Rhoad’s vision of dance, so the two founded Lucky Plush Productions.

“(The performances) are a lot about contemporary dance technique, but a lot of the movement is also very pedestrian, very human,” Rhoads said. “We often work with actors who do not have formal dance training because seeing a non-trained body move can be very interesting.”

Wilkinson, who has danced with Lucky Plush for one year, describes the group as unique because it is, “very collaborative. The group always talks and listens to each other throughout the whole process.”

Earlier this year, Lucky Plush worked with the Walkabout Theater Company in Chicago to perform “Voyaging,” a piece loosely based on the biography of Charles Darwin, his voyage on the HMS Beagle and his theories on natural selection. The performance looked at human social behavior and biological attraction the way Darwin would have in the 19th century.

“Darwin is trans-historical, he came from a specific time and place, but his ideas and concepts still shape our social and cultural realities today, ” Rhoads said.

Rhoads credits many of the concepts featured in Lucky Plush performances with her education and interest in history.

“I’ve always been a history geek, I just loved it,” Rhoads said. “And my interest in history has definitely informed the work of Lucky Plush.”

Rhoads, who was pregnant last year, set part of the “Voyaging” performance to a sonogram and a videotape of her stomach.

“(Dancing) essentially comes down to the embodiment and performance of everyday life,” Rhoads said on her philosophy of dance. “There is so much opportunity to look at different concepts through that lens.”

The Lucky Plush fall concert runs the weekends of Oct. 8 and Oct. 15 at the Vittum Theater, 1012 N. Noble Street, Chicago. Show times are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Student tickets are $10 and may be purchased in advance by calling (773)862-9484.4

Medill sophomore Merritt Watts is a PLAY writer. She can be reached at [email protected]