Illinois performing arts programs taking stage downtown

University of Illinois
Photo of a group of dancers on stage in colorful clothing.

Dancers rehearse "Can't Stop What's Coming" by dance professor Paige Cunningham-Caldarella at the Virginia Theatre. The Illinois dance and Lyric Theatre programs will perform in downtown Champaign this spring for "Krannert Center at the Virginia."

Photo by Natalie Fiol

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Dance and Lyric Theatre students at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign will have a change of scenery when they perform for the first time at the Virginia Theatre in downtown Champaign.

The two programs usually stage performances at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, but they'll move to the downtown venue for upcoming events while the Colwell Playhouse at Krannert Center is being renovated. Dance at Illinois Downtown is March 30-April 1, and the Lyric Theatre's production of "City of Angels" is April 13-15.

"We're quite thrilled about it. It's such beautiful space and historic space, and I think it will be a fantastic experience for our students," said Sara Hook, the head of the dance department.

Dancers occasionally do site-specific performances but most of their shows are in Colwell Playhouse. That venue is undergoing renovations to improve its accessibility, which will take just over a year to complete.

The Lyric Theatre program performs in Tryon Festival Theatre at Krannert Center, but it agreed to move a performance to the Virginia Theatre to help alleviate the demand on that space with the Colwell Playhouse unavailable, said Sarah Wigley, the resident director for Lyric Theatre. Likewise, the theatre department also will stage a show at the downtown venue in the fall.

Hook and Wigley said it is both educational and fun for students to perform in different places.

"Audiences have different vibes. It's good practice for our students to be in a different theater to experiment with what it's like to have a different audience," Hook said.

The Lyric Theatre performs regularly at Allerton Park and has performed small shows at Canopy Club and the Rose Bowl Tavern.

"The students feel like rock stars. It feels professional, working with different people, like they're touring," Wigley said.

Performing in a different venue comes with technical challenges, principally a smaller time frame in which to rehearse on the stage on which they'll perform because of other events. The programs will do their pre-tech work of setting lighting cues and media projections and figuring out the movement of props and scenery at Krannert Center, then transfer it to the Virginia Theatre prior to the performances.

Wigley said the Lyric Theatre performers will have a week and a half to rehearse in the Virginia Theatre, but they'll have to load the set - set up scenery and props, and have costumes, lights and orchestra pit ready - in just five hours before the first performance, compared with several weeks to prepare in the Tryon Festival Theatre. Once they work out the logistics, though, it will be easier to stage a production at the Virginia Theatre in the future, she said.

Dance at Illinois Downtown features the work of a range of choreographers, including the late Kariamu Welsh, the founder of an African dance technique called Umfundalai. Her work "Women Gather" was reset by dance professor Kemal Nance. It will be performed by students and alumni guests and accompanied by live drumming. Nance was a student of Welsh and the first male master teacher of Umfundalai. The show includes an African dance choreographed by Nance with original music and live drumming.

Photo of two dancers dressed in black bra tops and skirts facing each other on a stage and leaping in the air.

Dancers Anna Lillig and Genesis Medious rehearse "Haba Na Haba Hujaza Kibaba" by dance professor Kemal Nance at the Virginia Theatre.

Photo by Natalie Fiol

Faculty members will perform vignettes from dance professor Rebecca Nettl-Fiol's work "Danse Soirée de Bonbons" with music by Jacques Brel. The premiere of a group work by dance professor Paige Cunningham-Caldarella, a former Merce Cunningham Dance Company member, explores the intersection of the Cunningham technique and contemporary ballet. Postdoctoral fellow Alexandra Barbier will perform a solo autobiographical experimental dance. A piece by graduate student Anna Peretz Rogovoy is inspired by the botanical world and features original music by dance professor John Toenjes.

"City of Angels" tells the story of a writer working on a film noir script in the 1940s. The characters in his life are also characters that appear in his script, and most of the leading roles are both a person in the writer's life and a person in his film, Wigley said. The show requires a lot of costume changes and lighting cues to clarify whether the character onstage is one from the show's real world or movie world, she said.

The Tony Award-winning musical evokes the glamour and opulence of Hollywood, and "the Virginia has that Hollywood feel," Wigley said. The show premiered at Broadway's Virginia Theatre, the namesake for the downtown Champaign theater, both of which were designed by the same architect.

"It's a delight to be able to finally collaborate with the Virginia Theatre on two great productions," said Maureen Reagan, Krannert Center's associate director for marketing. "While we are naturally anxious to resume our production schedule in our own space, we are grateful that the Virginia Theatre offered us a helping hand. These circumstances have opened the door to talks of more collaborative efforts between Krannert Center and the Virginia."

Hook and Wigley said they hope this will interest a new segment of the community in dance and Lyric Theatre performances.

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