A self-described pothead dropout, Ron De Jesus got into dance by hanging out with his girlfriend–a dance student–some 20 years ago at Northeastern Illinois University. Previously he’d partnered her in a few “Hispanic events” at Roberto Clemente High School, in numbers where “she’d carry a basket of peanuts and wear her little Copacabana outfit,” as he puts it. But at NIU Dame Libby Komaiko, artistic director of the school’s resident Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater, took him under her wing and insisted he get his GED and enroll in college. “When I had a choice between underwater basket weaving at 8 AM and a dance class at 11,” he says, “I took dance.”

Soon he was performing flamenco with Ensemble Espanol and auditioning–supporting himself with the dancer’s usual patchwork of performing and teaching gigs. He landed a job with Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre, a multicultural company that performed in the style of Alvin Ailey and Martha Graham. From there he went to Tara Mitton’s modern-dance Chicago Repertory Dance Ensemble, based at the Ruth Page Theater, where he met Larry Long–“a great supporter”–who got him into ballet classes and eventually into the Ruth Page Nutcrackers (“I went from a mouse to a parent and finally to a lead”). Once De Jesus started teaching at Hubbard Street, artistic director Lou Conte invited him to audition. And for the last 17 years De Jesus, 38, has called Hubbard Street Dance Chicago home. But even now some of his relatives ask, “Are you still with that little dance troupe?”

Hardworking but not exactly ambitious, De Jesus has choreographed pieces from time to time–when someone asked him to. Before Conte stepped down as artistic director last August, he requested that De Jesus make a dance for the company. When new artistic director Jim Vincent saw it, he asked for “a different direction,” and the piece’s planned premiere last fall was postponed. As it turned out, Vincent didn’t just want it reworked–he wanted the choreographer to start from scratch. “It was a delicate situation,” says De Jesus. “He didn’t want to discourage me. But the music [Arvo Part] was too dramatic, and there were some problems.” (He adds that “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure”: Julie Nakagawa Böttcher saw the piece on tape and would like to set it on Hubbard Street 2, the young professional company she directs.)

In the meantime De Jesus says he felt like “a bit of a failure.” Hubbard Street is often on tour, and the only time to put a new piece together was a two-week stretch just before the company’s Christmas vacation this year. He’d been asked to use a Chicago composer but had no idea who. But he liked the piano playing of an accompanist for his ballet class, Jerome Begin, and invited him to compose a score.

Without an immediate go-ahead from the business office, however, Begin couldn’t start right away; De Jesus walked into his first rehearsal with no music whatsoever. “The dancers carried me,” he says. De Jesus had developed the concept for the piece after reading the work of “urban shaman” Gabrielle Roth, who advocates dancing for oneself in five “rhythms”: flowing, staccato, chaotic, lyrical, and still. Maybe it was time, he reasoned last December, to choreograph a piece inspired by “all the waves” she talks about. He started giving the dancers lists of images (“boiling water, Niagara Falls”), and they started improvising. “It was scary but kinda fun,” he says. “They had an opportunity to be true participants, collaborators. It wasn’t the usual assembly line of dance.” De Jesus–who performs the piece with Jamy Meek, Kendra Moore, Greg Sample, and Lauri Stallings–would finish rehearsals and “dash to Jerome’s house, where we’d talk about the music. It was a very sensitive process, and there was no time for errors.”

The result, Without Walls, has its premiere on Tuesday, April 17, at 6:30 PM–opening night of Hubbard Street’s spring season–along with Harrison McEldowney’s new Flatline and the company premiere of Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin’s Passomezzo. Performances continue through May 6 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph; call 312-902-1400 for tickets and more information.

–Laura Molzahn

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.