Grace Engine, presented along with This, That, and the Third and The Bystander as part of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's Forge Forward program. Credit: Todd Rosenberg

This week, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago returns to the Harris with a new work by company member and Chicago native Rena Butler in its fall program, Forge Forward. This, That, and the Third, Butler’s second work for the company, was inspired by the concept of code-switching. “I’ve had to do that my whole life,” says Butler, who attended a private Catholic school in Beverly. “I went to speech classes to clean up my vernacular to be comfortable in that predominantly white school. In eighth grade, I was the first African American female class president”—an accomplishment that seemed more significant to her school than it was to Butler personally (“Everyone said, ‘Do you know what this means?’ I just wanted to be president!” she recalls). “What I looked like and how I had to act differently in order to accommodate different types of people was often pointed out to me. You’ve heard [the phrase] ‘this, that, and the other.’ In the Black community, we say, ‘this, that, and the third.'”

To translate code-switching into dance, Butler combines a variety of movement vocabularies and musical genres. “We’re doing pirouettes and rolling on the floor and mixing in West African [dance],” she says. “I’m playing with space and how you can normalize otherness in new spaces or different places. I have a diverse cast in terms of gender, race, and age. I hope that the audience can find [a] vantage point based on their own experiences.”

Butler credits choreographer Kyle Abraham—who also premieres a new work, The Bystander, in the program—with encouraging her to pursue choreography while she was still a student at SUNY-Purchase and a dancer in his company, Abraham.In.Motion (now A.I.M.). “Kyle would sign out studio space for me while we were on tour and elect a few dancers to go in with me a few hours before company call at the theater. I’d work on something, and he’d come and critique it. He is a beautiful friend and a beautiful mentor,” she says, noting that Abraham also pushed her to audition for Hubbard Street. “It’s been four years since we’ve worked together. It was a dream to work with a choreographer I admire so much.”

“There are a lot of questions I’m trying to ask, such as, Does trying to adapt to a new space paralyze you or does it keep adding different colors to your palette? I think it’s the latter for sure. It keeps us multifaceted and keeps adding multiplicity to each identity as we move forward into a community. Based on where you’ve been and where you’re at, I hope you can find yourself in the work. I want to find humanity in the work.”  v