The way Chicagoans dance is big and wide, fearlessly filling the amplitude of space in the midwest. The way Chicagoans dance has brashness and grit that doesn’t look for compromises. It is muscular, bold, and quite upright. They don’t call it the City of Broad Shoulders for nothing. A founding dancer of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago who also taught in and directed its studio for nearly 40 years, Claire Bataille made us see it that way, working in the studio she loved almost to her final days before succumbing to pancreatic cancer on December 30, 2018. She was 66.
In the summer of 1977, Hubbard Street was founded by Lou Conte and four of his students. By 1980, Tribune critic Richard Christiansen declared, “They’re not only ready for the big time. They are the big time.” And their star was Bataille, whose tough elegance and technical chops set a new standard for Chicago dance. Bataille danced with the company for its first 15 years, a period that saw Hubbard Street rise from lecture demonstrations in senior citizen centers to performing on world stages, blending ballet technique with the intricate footwork and rhythms of tap and the audience-pleasing showmanship of musical theater.
Bataille first caught Conte’s eye when she arrived in his class in 1973. Though he had not intended to have a company or showcase his choreography, seeing Bataille, with her impeccable classical training, musical theater experience, and sheer instinct for dance, led to conversations about how to bring the work to an audience beyond the studio. “Claire made me want to make movement,” says Conte. “We had a deep, almost nonverbal understanding—she would simply know what I wanted to have happen. I really believe had there not been Claire Bataille, there would not be a Hubbard Street.”
“Claire was the great interpreter of Conte’s work,” says executive director of Chicago Dancemakers Forum and former Hubbard Street dancer Ginger Farley. “She set the bar for discipline, subtlety, and artistry in rehearsal, and when she got to the stage, something else happened altogether.” As Conte’s leading dancer, Bataille created signature roles in many pieces, including Georgia, Gershwin Dances, and Rodin Impressions. As the company grew and Conte began commissioning and acquiring works, she also excelled in choreography by Twyla Tharp, Lynne Taylor-Corbett, Margo Sappington, John McFall, and Daniel Ezralow. “She danced everything from beginning to end,” says Farley.
While those who witnessed her on stage never forgot it, Bataille also influenced generations of dancers in Chicago and worldwide as a teacher who imparted transparent classical technique and the development of strength and balance through Pilates. She began ballet classes with pliés in second position, the widest stance of the legs, heels grounded into the earth as the weight of the body falls into the floor and rises to the sky, arms reaching steadily through the walls. Her class was methodical, musical, and never skimped on tendus, the stretch of the foot that connects the body to the floor, indicating direction and the length of the leg. Affectionately known as “Mama Claire,” Bataille mentored countless young dancers as director of the studio’s scholarship program. “Claire consistently went above and beyond to nurture those she worked with,” recalls Maliwan Diemer, faculty and former studio manager of Lou Conte Dance Studio. “Watching her teach and coach the next generation, it was impossible to miss what a brilliant artist she was. She emphasized getting the feel and artistic integrity of the work right, coaxing dancers to find and embody the style while staying true to themselves.”
“Claire was a quiet giant,” remembers Gail Kalver, executive director of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago from 1984 to 2007. “Everything she said was thoughtful and truthful. Her words were few, but filled with impact. When she spoke, you listened.” In the video the company created for Bataille’s retirement from dancing in 1992 are the words, “Once you’re a dancer, you’re forever graceful. You carry that grace and that spirit with you for the rest of your life.” v