REVIEW: Course of Empire (Breakbone Dance Company)


A provacative and compelling empire



Breakbone Dance Company presents
Course of Empire
Conceived and Directed by Atalee Judy
Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western (map)
through Nov 20  |  tickets: $16  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Breakbone Dance Company claims to have been breaking the rules of contemporary dance for their thirteen years as a group. Breaking the rules is a subjective claim in these days of what I call artistic anarchy. The performance/concert Course of Empire is a thoroughly skilled and mellifluous take on society seen through architectural exploration but I’m not sure that it breaks the rules. The concert is a new work a year in the making, created under the direction of Breakbone Artistic Director Atalee Judy.

Breakbone Dance Company - aviatrixCourse of Empire combines industrial techno music and film projection with choreography. The Viaduct Theatre space is the perfect venue for such a production. It is situated literally under a viaduct on Western Avenue along a seemingly desolate street. The interior is sparse and painted black with chains, cinder blocks and scattered metal props. It has a very Teutonic feel that is amplified when the dancers appear. They are dressed like aviatrix explorers with goggles, close fitting helmets, and leather rucksacks. This production features Atalee Judy, Anita Fillmore, and Mindy Meyers. Founding member Suzanne Dado is featured in a video portion of the performance filmed by Carl Weidemann. The audience is led through four stages of building and destruction called excavations. That is the perfect description with the cinder blocks rolling and the dancers taking on the personas of building materials as well as the architect.

Judy, Fillmore, and Meyers expertly jumble their bodies through the growing pains of mankind’s early attempts at putting down foundations and building. They put miniature models of structures from history downstage as a mini focal point. The Roman Coliseum ruins, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Taj Mahal, and an incomplete structure are given as visual motif. “Course of Empire is broken into five parts: On Building, Living Architecture, Manifest, Inevitable Destruction, and Rebuilding the Interior.

The descriptions of these parts is what left me wondering what rules were being broken. The choreography is exquisite. Atalee Judy has produced a lyrical blend of modern, jazz, hip-hop, and a surprising touch of spiritual gospel moves set against visuals of destruction. This is a beautiful commentary on society, and maybe the company’s endgame veers towards breaking the rules by documenting architectural destruction through dance. Carl Weidemann’s video accompaniment is a loving look at what was built in the last century that now lay in ruins. An abandoned train station and church in Gary, Indiana is especially poignant knowing how the city still lays abandoned, and a dead city by some media outlets. Course of Empire was inspired by paintings of the same name by Thomas Cole. The paintings show the course of cultural development from an agrarian state to industry and depletion. I found the subject matter especially wrenching because of my own love of 19th and 20th century architecture. (I find modern structures to be cold and void of feeling; new shiny things have no soul and eventually humankind will grow bored and destroy them for the next new thing. Thomas’s “Course of Empire” eloquently shows human nature and how structures have souls seen in the eye of the beholder.


Breakbone Dance Company 01 breakbonedance-dancecastexcavation-carlwiedemann2
Breakbone DanceCo Breakbone Dance Company 08

I was fortunate to attend on the night when Breakbone celebrated its’ 13th anniversary season. There was a guerilla film shown if Atalee Judy dancing through an abandoned rail tunnel in Rochester, New York. It’s a definite moment of rule breaking in film. No permits were granted for the film short that was done with Steadicam on the fly. Ms. Judy claims that such films are the direction that Breakbone is heading. This may be a means of wider recognition, but it would be a shame to not see this company live and in the flesh. Dance is a tangible discipline where one can hear the breath and see the sweat of exertion. Breakbone’s passion is inspiring, and I hope that they don’t go totally viral (ala YouTube) or center just on their video work. Keep it live – that in itself will be breaking the rules. It’s the same as paying homage to a beautiful structure or preserving a treasured building.

Rating: ★★★


More Breakbone videos here.



3 Responses

  1. Hello KD Hopkins –

    Just wanted to respond to your review. While I do thank you for taking some time to write up your personal thoughts about my work, I think you have some misinformation in there as well as some research that you should have done before citing me for my claims about breaking rules, among other things.

    So first: If you were to actually research my company and my bulk of work – you will find that we were the first dance company in Chicago to tackle a full evening narrative length original conceptual works for our dances, instead of the “buffet” styling of six 5-10 minute works about this or that… we broke the buffet trend and created large seamless works that were original and distinctive. We also broke the rules and ran all of shows for 2, 3 and even 4 weeks. No one did this back in 1998 – guarantee you that! We also codified an aggressive & technically stylized movement style of falling skills and releases that influenced many Chicago area dance companies from 1997-2008. So many more unconventional approaches & issues we have explored to promote establish and market our company over the past 13 years – you just might not be to comprehend because you have not been around. Speaking of which – show me any other company who approaches architecture, its demise and visual ruin the way we have done? GO ahead.

    Second, if you were to actually read our press release for my newest work “Course of Empire”, you would find that it is a departure from past ways of working and uses an unconventional approach to my own personal choreography (from my OLD way of working & formulizing dance). So I never claimed we were breaking any rules of dance in that press release, but if you were to actually ask me at the show that night… I would have gladly told you that I was breaking my OWN rules of how I personally perceive and choreograph dance with this new work. This entire entire yearlong journey has been funded by The Chicago Dancemakers Forum Grant that I received that supports change in direction and a deepening into process & development for choreographers.

    Third, you obviously do not realize that dance on film is actually a very viable opportunity for dance companies that do not have large budgets to continually offer live performance due to thinning grants and donations. What would cost me $15,000 to put on a show – can support numerous dance for film productions. Financial bitching aside, dance films may also be submitted to actual film festivals and European festivals and not just “ala YouTube”. Yes, we promote our company through our site-specific live dancecasts through YouTube, Vimeo & JustIn, which are very different than our actual dance films (shot in HD and meticulously edited and copyright protected) that were shot in special places around the country. They will be packaged and submitted to dance festivals and will represent our company in places that we will probably never be able to perform at. Sorry if you are confused. In addition… if you would have asked, but didn’t, our dance film work will be performed live in front of the sites that we film at to bring the “site to the performance space” if/ when we have the funding to offer such live performances. Dunno if you have applied for any grants lately – but they have been severely diminished. So when we got $6,000 last year – it’s $3,000 this year. Get the picture. Maybe if you had a conversation with me about the new direction of the company – you might have understood this factor and reconsidered it to be resourceful, intuitive & survivalistic.

    keep exploring, break the rules often and cite your sources always.

    ~Atalee Judy
    Artistic Director
    Breakbone DanceCo. NFP est 1997

  2. Blimey, I’ve never seen a company push back so hard against a glowing review.

    “Breakbone’s passion is inspiring…” and “[t]he choreography is exquisite” should not, by any self-respecting company, be responded to with curt, arrogant blatherings beginning with “if you had read this”, “if you had researched that”, and “if you had talked to me”. A more grotesque and infantile retort – or multiple retorts – can not be imagined.

    This is one case where a review would inspire me to go to a show, but the artists’ big mouths convince me otherwise. Now *that’s* some breakin’ of the rules.

    • thanks, Madelyn, for expressing in words what I thought when I first saw the comments. It seemed odd that – after a 600-word review with plenty of pictures, a youtube video and a “recommended” rating – we are condescendingly chastised for not, basically, cutting-and-pasting their press release into our column. Not the most business-savvy response to what amounts to positive free-press to thousands of weekly readers.

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