Sitting to my left, Melissa Thodos softly sings Starship to herself. “We built this city…” An early run-through of The White City: Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 is about to begin, and the choreographer is radiating equal parts excitement and nervousness. Like the showpiece metropolis it re-creates, City brings together creatives from multiple disciplines—and holds potential to be either a triumph or a catastrophe.
Down the hall, filmmaker Chris Olsen takes a break from shooting footage to explain how he’ll use projections not only to show the Beaux-Arts buildings taking shape on Chicago’s South Side, but also to allow the audience to see inside the characters’ minds.
During other moments, “I’m as minimal as I can be,” he says. An early scene shows the contentious first meeting of principal architects hosted by John Wellborn Root in the row house he built at 1308 North Astor Street. (The section cleverly invokes Kurt Jooss’s 1932 The Green Table, one of the Joffrey Ballet’s most celebrated revivals.) Olsen tells me that Root, concerned for the group’s cohesion, escorted each architect out to his—and, in one historic case, her—carriage on a cold, snowy night. Root took that one-on-one time “as an opportunity to point all these brilliant minds in the same direction,” Olsen says.
Root died of pneumonia within days. “So it’s about the poignancy of that last handshake,” Olsen explains. “If all eyes need to be on the dancers, I have to let them have the stage.”
Olsen does assist the architect’s final moments: During an affecting deathbed solo, a vision of the 600-acre campus appears through the window of Root’s mansion. “If you were to shoot out of that window [today], you’d see modern buildings,” says the son of a Champaign architect and preservationist. “So I reconstructed everything myself using old-school visual effects tricks.” With a laugh, he thanks panoramic interior views he found “via the wonderful online realtor tool.” (Root’s Astor Street home is currently for sale.)
Another key resource was the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Chris Multhauf, who narrates the piece’s prologue and led a special version of his popular “Devil in the White City” tour for the dancers and creative team in January.
Nathan Rohrer’s costumes hide room to move in buttoned-up period silhouettes, although there’s a little sparkle thrown in for the stage, black sequins designed to catch the light in sections like “Sidewalk Strut.” That scene betrays most the influence of Thodos’s cochoreographer on the project: Broadway legend and Bob Fosse authority Ann Reinking. Mayor Harrison (Wade Schaaf), with feline shoulder rolls and playboy charm, enters surrounded by fairgoers carrying dainty parasols. This is the mayor who was two weeks away from marrying his third wife, a New Orleans millionaire 37 years his junior, when he was assassinated by Patrick Eugene Prendergast. Former Joffrey star and noted character dancer Gary Chryst offered crucial assistance as a dramaturg.
The foundation on which everyone’s work rests was poured two years ago, when a friend of a friend, composer Bruce Wolosoff, sent Reinking his Songs Without Words. It was recorded by string quartet Carpe Diem, which will perform City’s score live. Reinking suggested the music would be perfect for Thodos’s company. Last summer, Thodos read Erik Larson’s book The Devil in the White City and called Reinking to suggest the collaboration.
“What these people were able to accomplish in this 27-month building phase only to watch it disappear,” filmmaker Olsen says of the dance, as ephemeral as the White City itself, “hooked into all of us in different ways.”
Tour the White City with Thodos Dance Chicago at the [node:33023 link=Harris Theater;] Friday 4.