SCDT promotional photo

Kim Davis, a dancer with South Chicago Dance Theatre. 

The South Chicago Dance Theatre (SCDT) will celebrate its fifth anniversary on May 20 at the Harris Theater with a show featuring a quintet of new dance pieces. 

Kia Smith, SCDT’s executive artistic director, founded the Hyde Park-based company in 2017. In the following half-decade, SCDT started a “Choreographic Diplomacy” collaboration with a group of Korean dancers, developed a Black History Month performance program and put on an annual South Chicago Dance Festival

For “An Evening with the South Chicago Dance Theatre: Celebrating Five Years,” SCDT will perform five new pieces — four commissioned from some of Smith’s favorite choreographers, and a fifth from Smith herself. 

“In Lieu of Flowers,” Smith’s piece, is about the grieving process she went through after the death of her father, the legendary South Side saxophonist Jimmy Ellis, last July. She created much of it during a fellowship at Jacob’s Pillow, a Massachusetts dance center, in the months following his death. 

“I went from my dad passing away and then a month later was in this fellowship. I was processing that, and being in this fellowship program and having to make work and so grief was at the forefront of my mind,” said Smith. 

“It’s not like someone could look at it and say, ‘Oh, that’s about my dad,’” she continued. “It’s more of an internal expression of what I experienced in the grieving process.” 

Smith is, however, working on a longer piece that’s more recognizably about her father and his place in Chicago jazz history as one of the early organizers of and musicians at Jazz in the Alley, the weekly back alley Bronzeville party that began in the 1950s. It’s set to premiere next year.

“My dad was such a public figure. I felt kind of detached from his passing because it felt like such a public thing,” she said. “And so making this piece, for me, felt like my opportunity to say goodbye to my dad in my own way and have control over it.” 

The other pieces in the May 20 performance are world premieres from choreographers, three of them with ties to Chicago, that work in a variety of genres and styles: “HYbr:ID Line” by Ron De Jesús, “On a Lark” by Stephanie Martinez, “Lit-anies” by Crystal Michelle and “Coeurs Séparés” by Wade Schaaf. 

Martinez’s contemporary piece follows five dancers as they move through famous film soundtracks, such as “Pinocchio” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” until “cracks in the music break the fantasy.” 

Smith said she had been a fan of the older choreographer before meeting her downtown one day. “I knew that she was making a piece at the Joffrey (Ballet) and so I happened to be walking by the Joffrey, literally just walking by that building, and she walked out,” recalled Smith. “And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, are you Stephanie Martinez?’ I told her who I was, that I had a company. From there I just stayed in touch with her over social media, and I asked her, ‘Will you come make a piece for my company?’” 

Michelle, meanwhile, is the one artist in the show who hasn’t spent much time in Chicago — she is currently the resident choreographer at the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company in Ohio, where Smith met her. 

“We’ve always been in touch and always been friends, and I invited her to make a work,” said Smith. “You might call it Afro-contemporary or Afro-modern, something along those lines. I wouldn’t say there’s content in terms of a storyline to it, but she’s always talking about ancestors — so that’s part of the narrative, being a representation of those that came before you.” 

Smith said she enjoyed curating a program where none of the pieces necessarily have much of a relation to each other. 

“They're all very, very different choreographers. And the pieces are all very, very different in style and tone. I think the through line is that it is so different,” she said. 

“That’s exciting for me because when I go to see a dance concert, I like seeing the dancers have to embody different styles in the same concert.” 

“An Evening with the South Chicago Dance Theatre,” May 20, 7:30 p.m. Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph St. $15 - $50, or use discount code DANCE10 for $10 tickets.


Christian Belanger graduated from the University of Chicago in 2017. He has previously written for South Side Weekly, Chicago magazine and the Chicago Reader.

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