Like many listeners, Frank Chaves didn’t discover the music of Eva Cassidy until after her death in 1996. The singer, whose repertoire ranged from jazz standards to blues, pop, folk and country tunes, passed away at the age of 33 of melanoma. Since her untimely death, her stunning voice and tragic story have led to much wider recognition.
This weekend at the Annenberg Center, River North Dance Chicago will premiere Chaves’ new piece, “Eva,” which was commissioned by Dance Celebration for its 30th anniversary season. Chaves, River North’s artistic director, was first exposed to Cassidy’s music through Randy Swartz, artistic director of Dance Celebration.
“I fell in love with her voice,” Chaves says. “She has the voice of an angel and a gift for making you really hear and understand lyrics in a new way, a very clear and intense way.”
“Eva” features four of Cassidy’s covers: Sting’s “Fields of Gold,” the blues classic “Stormy Monday,” the jazz standard “Autumn Leaves” and the gospel favorite “Wade in the Water.” While Chaves was more interested in responding to her voice than to her story with his choreography, her loss is felt through his use of vocal snippets as transitions between the songs. “It was challenging because Eva wasn’t known for talking,” Chaves says, “but I wanted to create the sense that you were attending a live concert. It’s a little haunting, but I think it’s also tender and warming to the soul to hear her voice as if she were there.”
The remainder of the program comprises three Philadelphia premieres and a pair of return performances. “The Good Goodbyes,” set to an original solo piano suite by Chicago Children’s Choir director Josephine Lee, is about relationships within the dance community, while “Renatus” is a striking solo for a female dancer wearing a scarlet evening gown with a 30-foot train. “Three” is a male trio dance with an Asian-inflected score, created by Robert Battle shortly before he was named artistic director of the renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Finally, Chaves’ “Forbidden Boundaries” features the entire company playing tug-of-war with a stretchy, ripped shirt.
The full program, Chaves says, represents the diversity of River North Dance Chicago. “I don’t want people to just come see River North; I want people to feel River North,” he says. “Our mission is to create and present a highly artistic program that is also accessible and entertaining, even for an audience who might be afraid of dance.”
River North Dance Chicago
Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
3680 Walnut St.