Shelby Moran Amarantos in Identity City. The 2020 piece will be remounted with Cerqua Rivera in 2021. Credit: Fernando Rodriguez Photography

Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre launches a hybrid 2021 season on April 22, with an in-person and livestream performance to inaugurate a new partnership with Epiphany Center for the Arts; new works by co-founder and artistic director Wilfredo Rivera and choreographers Stephanie Martinez, Monique Haley, and Shannon Alvis; and a fall concert series three weekends in October. 

Despite the challenges of 2020, CRDT rapidly made changes to continue creating and presenting new works. “When it all hit last March, we were in our second week of rehearsals for the season,” recalls Rivera. “We stopped everything. I have an amazing business partner, my executive director [Catherine Painter], who was able to secure COVID relief assistance to keep the dancers paid. While she was doing that for the first month or month and a half, I went back to the drawing board to reenvision the season.” Pieces were postponed and pared down, redeveloped for smaller casts, and restructured to accommodate physical distancing, no partnering, and no physical contact. “By end of April, we were running on Zoom,” he says. “We had dancers and choreographers in California, Michigan, Texas, Wisconsin, and Illinois. We were creating new work”—Mood Swing, a suite of works in response to the pandemic and racial injustice, and Identity City, a piece exploring nonbinary, queer, and trans experience. 

By last summer, CRDT returned to working in person at their home base at Extensions Dance Center. “Once we returned to the studio, one thing that is not so glamorous is we are part of the cleaning crew to keep everyone safe,” says Rivera. “We sweep and mop and wipe things down. We are a professional COVID-19 sanitizing crew ensemble! We started in person in June 2020, but because it was still very new, I split the company into two casts, with only four to five dancers rehearsing live, the other half rehearsing on Zoom. We swapped days. So it was challenging. Everything took a bit longer to create, choreograph, absorb, rehearse.” In the fall, the new works were presented in the Auditorium Theatre’s concert series, At Home with the Auditorium, and CRDT finished their 2020 season with a livestream concert at Evanston’s Studio5 performing arts center.

In coordination with gradual reopening of theatrical space in 2021, CRDT is continuing to offer a combination of in-person and virtual experiences. “This year, we’re looking at returning to a fuller company,” says Rivera. “Almost everyone is vaccinated. We’re returning slowly but surely to partnering. Some of our work we are offering online on demand: matinees, full concerts, virtual workshops.”

At Epiphany Center for the Arts, an 1885 Episcopal church in the West Loop recently redeveloped into an arts, music, and performance space by owner and developer David Chase, CRDT will present its first in-person performance in over a year, a performance that will launch a long-term partnership with the center and open the door for other dance performances at the venue. “Their mission and values parallel Cerqua Rivera’s as far as celebrating diversity and bringing people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds under the same umbrella,” he says. “It’s a historical place as far as being progressive in their modeling of what community means.”

Simone Stevens in rehearsal for Mood Swing, one of the pieces in Cerqua Rivera’s 2021 season.Credit: Fernando Rodriguez Photography

Community development is also at the heart of CRDT’s Inside/Out series, which has combined collaborations between choreographers and composers with audience conversation for the past six seasons. “Part of the cycle is moving the company to give people of color, women, and minorities leadership roles in the organization,” says Rivera. “Shannon Alvis, Monique Haley, and Stephanie Martinez are female choreographic leaders and bring their own cultural heritage and leadership perspective to the organization. That’s part of the makeup of what we aspire to create and the kind of story we’re trying to put front and center.”

Reflecting on how the pandemic and events of the past year have caused him to view the work at CRDT, Rivera says, “It has magnified, amplified, and vindicated the work and the focus I’ve had for the past six seasons. We’ve been on this train, on this bus for a while now, exploring deep personal narratives that reflect and talk about heritage, culture, lineage, and our place in society. How does society shape us, and how are we navigating or accepting challenges? It has strengthened my fortitude and perseverance that we have been on the right track.”

“As challenging and dark and difficult as these times are, Cerqua Rivera does not shy away from the subject matter and looks at it with a lens of hope and unity and joy,” he continues. “Because we’re still a segregated city, there’s this small nucleus of folks who intersect, but outside there are vast walls. We want to serve as a progressive vehicle to let people feel they have a place at the table and see themselves and their narratives onstage. That’s key to the next layer of healing we all need.”  v