Heaven, Deeply Rooted Dance Theater Credit: Michelle Reid

Deeply Rooted Dance Theater (DRDT), founded in 1995, has been transitioning for over a year. In September 2019, founding artistic director Kevin Iega Jeff passed the baton to longtime DRDT educational director Nicole Clarke-Springer, and a new artistic team, all with long ties to the company, stepped into formation. In his new role as creative director, Jeff absorbed himself with the task of finding and founding a new institutional home for the company on the south side of Chicago and developing an initiative for interdisciplinary works. 

Then 2020. Through the year’s challenges, DRDT’s principal values have continued to guide its actions: “We believe art is fundamental in forming community . . . We recognize the relationship between the aesthetic and the political . . . We find joy.” 

COVID-19 caught DRDT on the verge of premiering Goshen, a contemporary rendition of the story of Exodus created in collaboration with gospel artist Donald Lawrence. “Exodus deals with governments gone awry,” says Jeff. “People are challenged to free themselves. It’s about oppression, connection, and freedom.” While they anticipate resuming the project post-pandemic, Deeply 25, which launches their 25th anniversary season on October 17, is no less in tune with our present moment, with a mixed bill of works that consider individual relationships to America, the lives of Black men, and possibilities for renewal. “The program was originally called The Art of Creative Healing, in response to our times and societal issues, George Floyd, COVID,” says Clarke-Springer. “What do we need to heal ourselves?”

Reflecting on the past 25 years, Jeff describes the work of building a company as a process of building a community, lessons he learned during another pandemic with Jubilation Dance Company, the company he founded at the age of 21 in New York. “We had just met with [editor-in-chief William Como] about positioning Jubilation on the cover of Dance Magazine. We were at this incredibly exciting point when we ran smack into the AIDS epidemic,” he recalls. “We lost Bill Como, our booking agent, our board chair, [dancer] Aaron Dugger. It was really apparent our infrastructure is the human beings that drive it. I couldn’t go on with the work without this team. I dismantled the company and focused on a community outreach project. My sister called the recital for that outreach project ‘Deeply Rooted.’ It came from a poem that Malcolm X wrote about how the arts are deeply rooted in community.”

A year directing Chicago’s Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre reinforced the need to start from the community up. Jeff began the process of cofounding a new dance company when he stumbled across the old recital program. The name fit their purpose. “We thought it expressed what we wanted to do and the accountability we needed to have. As the company grows, we need to stay nice and plain and simple and humble and understand where we’re rooted and what makes all that other stuff possible. So we chose the name Deeply Rooted.” 

Of their mission, Jeff says, “We weren’t just interested in dance excellence that would speak from an African American perspective aesthetically. We were also interested in African American consciousness, what it meant, and how it needed to be supported. So there were two objectives, an artistic objective and a spiritual objective. Deeply Rooted needed to build a community that would support us with the right challenge, confidence, and humility.”

“When we talk about the African American aesthetic, it’s not monolithic,” he points out. “We’re all African if we talk about where humanity had its origins. The human diaspora spread onto the planet and became this incredibly diverse human race. There’s an African American Black experience shaped by the way America was founded, but the human experience is where we’re all interconnected.” 

Of the company’s continuing work, Clarke-Springer says, “We come with our authentic voices and create space for everyone to have a voice. When the work is created through that process, by bringing who you really are, discovering more about yourself, and putting that onstage, you create community by allowing others to see themselves inside of it. I think I’m coming to see dance, but I see myself: the best of myself, the worst of myself, the possibilities I could become.”

Now, as the world faces a host of challenges, Jeff takes an expansive and optimistic perspective. “I feel prepared because of my experience with AIDS. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t impact you emotionally, but you know how to unpack the emotion. It’s common sense in terms of cause and effect. I attribute that to my mentor Lee Aca Thompson at the Bernice Johnson Dance Studio. We would talk for hours about the cycles of time in creation, how civilizations ebb and flow, the cause and effect of oppression and power. If you notice, many cultures talk about this time in similar ways: things will end for new to begin. Humanity is asking more from us spiritually. There’s a consciousness that’s awakening. It could be scary, or it could be a really beautiful possibility. I live in the space where it’s a beautiful possibility that we have to go through this to get to the other side.” 

That lesson in faith came at a crucial moment for DRDT 22 years ago, when Clarke-Springer, then a dancer in the company, gave Jeff a jar of mustard seeds he still keeps on his desk. “I was thinking I couldn’t continue to do this work. That’s where family comes in. Nobody does this alone. She gave me these mustard seeds, and it touched my heart so deeply. It ignited my accountability to my mentor, my teachers, my family, all the people who helped make me possible. I needed somebody to believe it was worth it and say it to me. She said it to me. Who knew she would be the one that would be the artistic director now?” 

“We’re going to make it as a community,” he says, speaking of DRDT but also, perhaps, of life. “People are going to make mistakes, and people are going to make incredible achievements. It’s going to level out as people mature into their leadership. Whatever the company’s future is, it’s already successful because we planted seeds, and they will take it and do what they need to do. That’s what the mission is all about.”  v