Terence Marlin, a middle-aged white man, dances in semidarkness. He is wearing dark trousers and a dark short-sleeved shirt. He is seen in profile, his arms stretched to either side.
Terence Marling, founder of COMMON Credit: Joseph A. Hernandez

During the second iteration of COMMON canvas, bodies circled around a center point: a pile of clothes in an upstage corner. For a moment, the pile of clothes moved, as if to take a breath, and the bodies around it held still. The performance, which Chicago dance artist and current Hubbard Street member Alysia L. Johnson created in collaboration with students of COMMON Conservatory, was built in a day.

COMMON canvas is a newer feature of COMMON Conservatory, which Terence (Terry) Marling founded in 2018. Since its first performance in 2021, the canvas series has brought members of the Chicago artistic community together to create an improvisation-based piece with the Conservatory over the course of a day, serving the organization’s mission to nurture the dance community artistically and through pursuing financial equity. The product of the day’s rehearsal is a ticketed event held at the Drucker Center (1535 North Dayton), and seats often sell out. The ticket revenue is split evenly amongst the dancers.

COMMON Conservatory is a space of passage for emerging dance artists into a professional career. The 36-week professional training program includes daily technique classes in ballet and contemporary or modern dance, and rehearsal in the afternoon. Ongoing creation processes with rotating choreographers coalesce in quarterly performances, the final one synthesizing the previous three.

Marling founded the professional training program out of a need he identified in the Chicago dance scene, a need which he would argue is not exclusive to Chicago—a space for young dancers to establish a sustainable career in the city.

This move was another step in his history of dancer advocacy. In his early 20s, Marling was a union shop steward at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. He was deeply involved in negotiating multiple basic agreements, which are the long-term union agreements that govern the relationship between the company and its dancers. The union made these collective bargaining agreements every four years.

He recalls, “I loved to stand at the helm of that, because I was always there fighting for what the dancers should have. So that really goes back a long way; I’ve always felt that dancers are my people, and people that I want to advocate for. It’s not easy to become a dancer, and to stay a dancer. It takes a lot of effort in order to do it, and there are a lot of sacrifices that have to be made.”

Building COMMON has therefore required analyzing “the economics of how things work, and trying to make things possible for the dancers . . . I think that the Chicago freelance dance scene can use this kind of place as a support mechanism.”

Marling himself had a favored entrance into Chicago’s dance scene. He began his training at Ruth Page Center for the Arts under the venerated ballet teacher Larry Long. He danced at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and at Germany’s Nationaltheater Mannheim before becoming a member of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. He spent four seasons onstage with Hubbard Street before becoming its rehearsal director in 2010. In 2013, he was named director of Hubbard Street 2 (HS 2), Hubbard Street Dance’s preprofessional company. He described his work with COMMON as somewhat analogous to his position with HS 2.

“Those were jobs, you know, those are actual paid jobs,” Marling noted, referring to a company position in HS 2.

“When that closed down, I was definitely looking for that kind of exciting environment . . . this little extra space and time to get what you need to get out of your training.”

The Conservatory program enables a mutual reciprocity between Chicago dancemakers or freelance dancers, and those in training. Marling often selects choreographers whom he wishes to give more time and space to create. The Conservatory is currently in process with Jackie Nowicki, and the performance will take place Saturday, March 25, at 7 PM. Nowicki is one of the 11 guest artists working with the Conservatory this year. She is also the next guest artist for canvas. Previous canvas artists included Adeline Else, Katlin Michael Bourgeois, Braeden Barnes, Noelle Kayser, Ibrahim Sabbi, and Marling. Auditions for visiting artists for canvas are open to artists of all kinds, and Marling aims for multidisciplinary works to emerge from the program. 

Marling has a long-term goal of developing a professional company. His organization is currently largely supported by its donors, with Fractured Atlas as its fiscal sponsor. COMMON has applied for 501(c)(3) status, which would assist with the accumulation of funds necessary to pay a group of dancers a living wage for their work. Kelsey McFalls, the director of development, reported that this transition should be complete before the end of 2023. However, Marling notes, growth is a process, and not a situation that can be forced. He does not want to create a company whose members experience uncertainty about how much or when they will be paid.

“So this does mean that it has to be very slow, controlled growth; it’s almost like watching a plant grow. You just don’t see it. We just have to very, very carefully make sure it doesn’t die,” he told me.

Marling is aware that part of having a socially sustainable company is a structure of collective leadership. He envisions the company being “dancer-centric” and collectively led. The company will have agency in its own functioning in all respects, with, for example, “a dancer who knows a lot about legal things, or in fact, a lawyer or . . . a dancer who is also a sound engineer, or a videographer . . . eventually building a group that has multiple skills, and everyone’s invested in the work on multiple levels.” The goal is “that everybody reaps the benefit from the work that gets created.”

Models of distributed leadership are becoming more prevalent; companies such as Gibney Dance, Sydnie L. Mosley Dances, and Dance/NYC share creative agency and responsibilities internally. These shifts away from centralized forms of power have happened in response to widespread economic hardship that the COVID-19 pandemic induced and larger awareness of ongoing racial and economic injustice. Many artistic companies have provided more space for diverse voices and prioritized equity in their internal structures.

COMMON currently has three people on its administrative staff: Joseph Hernandez, Lauryn Masciana, and McFalls. Masciana was a dancer in the Conservatory before undertaking her current program administrator role. She graduated with her BFA in 2020 amidst the upheaval of the pandemic, and found in COMMON a space where she could continue her artistic practice. Having witnessed the program’s evolution over the years, Mascinana noted that it has “maintained the central goal of focusing on the dancers as individuals.”

“Each group of artists has been quite different from the group before it. That being said, the elements of the conservatory have shifted to fit the needs of each given group. The range of choreographers and faculty has broadened over time,” she wrote.

COMMON also brings dancers into Chicago from across the country. Marling mentioned that many dancers have come for the program, often directly upon graduating from college, and stay after their completion. This function of the program is important, he feels, to fuel a thriving ecosystem of dance in Chicago.

The Conservatory, Marling asserts, is already situated as the future company’s foundation. He clarified that the Conservatory would never function as a source of funding for the company, but that “part of it is amassing enough really amazing dancers here in Chicago and creating enough of a scene that building a company is quite natural.”

He reflected on COMMON: “It’s where I feel I’m best applying my efforts in the dance world. . . . This is where I can best be of use. This is what I’ve determined. If somebody can figure out a better way, though, like something I can do better, I’ll listen.”