May 07, 2016
BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Choreographer Melissa Thodos has celebrated Chicago on four continents, in 27 states, most inner city neighborhoods, and recently at the Harris Theater for her Spring season, “Chicago Revealed.” In 2011, along with Tony Award-winning dancer Ann Reinking, she re-created the World’s Columbian Exposition for “White City,” surely the most evocative dance tribute to our city, and critics are consistent in praising her works as gifted expressions of Chicago’s voices and stories. Now, as Thodos Dance Chicago celebrates its 25th anniversary, we salute Melissa for keeping Chicago as her muse.
A Wilmette native, Melissa danced for 8 years with the Chicago Repertory Dance Ensemble following her graduation from Skidmore College. Although she no longer dances with her company, Melissa has lost none of the refinement of movement characteristic of a dancer. When she is not directing her troupe, you will often find Melissa with husband Rick Johnston beside an ice rink, watching their beautiful twin daughters Olivia and Sophia perform with their own gifted grace.
It was a gift to look backwards recently with a forward-thinking Chicagoan like Melissa, preparing for her 2016 Summer Dance Intensives for area dancers, many of whom receive scholarships for the program.
Happy 25th Anniversary! Tell us, what did that very first performance feel like?
Getting the Company started was very organic and felt very natural at the time. A company that I had danced with had already produced some of my work, so I began my own company by asking my colleagues in the community to dance in some of my works with me. I had them produced through Dance Chicago, a local dance festival under the original Company name “Melissa Thodos & Dancers.”
Did you dance in that first show?
Yes, I performed with my Company until I had my twins. At the age of 36, it seemed like a good and appropriate time to retire from the stage and continue as an educator, director, and choreographer.
When did you first discover ballet and what encouragement did you get from your family?
We grew up in Wilmette, walking distance to a downtown pocket of Evanston. As a child on a family walk one day, I saw a building being constructed and I asked my mother what it would be. She said it was to be a ballet studio and, on the spot, I said, “I want to go there,” and I did! The school was The Evanston School of Ballet, where I trained through high school. It is still there today and I received fantastic classical training there. My parents were both professors at Northwestern and nurtured a creative environment at home. My twin sister Diane is a painter and another sister, Christina, an actress.
Over the years you have done wonderful tributes to Chicago, such as “White City.” Tell me about that ballet. Are there any others in which Chicago served as your inspiration?
Ann Reinking, the Tony Award-winning choreographer of “Chicago,” is a respected colleague and also a dear friend. She has set her own choreography on Thodos Dance Chicago, in addition to that of the iconic Bob Fosse. With Chicago as my home, I approached her to create a story ballet about Chicago’s World’s Fair titled “The White City.” We premiered the work in 2011 and have toured it all over the country. I am so glad that The Joffrey Ballet has Chicago’s World’s Fair as the setting for their new ”Nutcracker,” which will premiere this holiday season.
Ann and I have also created a story ballet about the life of Helen Keller and Ann Sullivan titled “A Light in the Dark,” which premiered in 2013 and has also been on tour nationally since. We will be performing it with the Chicago Children’s Theater here in Chicago this coming fall.
This past year I also conceived and choreographed a special dance story about the life of dancer Sono Osato, titled “Sono’s Journey.” We are creating a film and documentary about it. It has strong ties to our city as Sono and her family lived in Chicago and, for a time, in Evanston.
For the past two years, for our home season, we coupled one of our story ballets with a second act of contemporary works. Two years ago this special second act was titled “Chicago Inspired” and this past year we created another Chicago-focused second act titled “Chicago Revealed.”
I know your community efforts are extraordinary. What are you doing now in this area, and what moves you most?
We continue to value and grow our work and our ties to the community – it is so important to our mission and my passion for education and giving back is so strong.
We have a wonderful partnership with The Union League Boys and Girls Club, The Barreto Club, where we teach dance classes. We have mentored dance students and taught master classes at Chi-Arts, the public High School for Performing Arts. We teach dance classes at The Menomonee Club and have a Youth Ensemble that performs all over the city. We send our dancers into many school settings with our dance enrichment assembly program, “Imagine Dance,” and to teach master classes to all ages.
You and your husband Rick Johnston work together at the company. What is that like?
Working with Rick is great. He is extremely organized and strategic, and is immensely helpful to the Company in so many ways. We have many deadlines and he truly helps to keep many trains running on time.
Your beautiful girls are such skilled skaters – are they dancers as well?
My daughters danced for many years while skating, too. They were part of the Company’s Youth Ensemble, as well. Though the demands of skating have increased, they do continue to have dance training as part of their skating regime, which they enjoy.
Their focus is synchronized ice skating. They are on the junior team of the Chicago Jazz and won first place at the national competition, and first place in international competitions in Milan and in Switzerland this past year. We are so proud of their hard work!
You attract such wonderful dancers – what do you think really sets them apart?
What makes the dancers in the Company so wonderful is their talent, passion, and commitment to the art form. They have degrees in dance from reputable conservatories, universities, and colleges. When they join the Company, they have a clear direction of their goals – goals that align with our mission in dance performance, creation, and education – and we activate them in all three of those areas.
What do you believe people are looking for when they attend the ballet?
I believe that audiences look to be transported; to leave their lives and enter the creative realm of the dance artist by experiencing what is happening on stage. The many components of dance production and the many contributions of artists and designers come together in a very special and crafted honed way to make that happen.
You are an entrepreneur and head of a major company – what do most enjoy about your role?
I enjoy working with and mentoring young artists, and helping them to navigate their creative lives. I enjoy advocating for dance as an art form and also enjoy providing opportunities for artists in the company to grow as performers, choreographers and educators.
What are your ongoing goals? Do you believe that you have successfully satisfied your first mission?
I do believe that I have satisfied the goals that I have set for myself in dance, but look forward to continued growth and development through new creative projects and opportunities in the community.
Thank you, Melissa for choosing Chicago as the home for the incredible company you have built and for sharing our city’s vibrancy with the world.