Founded after a "rant" about commercialism and Christmas, Chicago's Laboratory Dancers challenge how we emotionally and aesthetically identify with performance art. 

Written + Photographed By T. Robert Owen 

In an industrial warehouse district just a few miles west of Chicago’s Loop is the Fulton Street Collective. The large, unassuming brick building is full of lofts for artists including the Laboratory Dancers who are working to redefine dance on their terms while making it accessible to everyone.

The artist collective of about 20 “Lab Rats” takes choreography based on emotion from the “inside out,” breaking audience separation with their idiosyncratic modern dance and performance art. They can be found in nontraditional venues like bars and homes, while partnering with musicians and visual artists for accentuation.

Filled with intrigue and yearning for an unforgettable experience, I traveled to the West Loop for their last event entitled Hook & Eye. I entered the Fulton Street Collective building off an alley into an almost pitch dark freight elevator.

As the old creaky lift rose, audience members soon realized they were not alone. Two dancers clad in black wearing masks of nylon to obscure their faces thrust their arms out into the dark and stepped with heavy undead feet slowly through the small elevator area violating personal space as they moved to a distorted funeral dirge played on cello.  

Exiting the elevator we found ourselves in narrow dimly lit corridors with more dancers at installations exploring experimental movement, art, projections and live music with dark morbid themes.

Two dancers, one in a long sheer silver silk evening gown, the other in pure black, danced passionately with each other in a performance filled with intensity, lust and anger. The two women were intertwined as they used the audiences’ bodies to roll across the corridor draped in plastic sheeting as strips of fabric hung from the ceiling.

“What makes it great is that it’s different every time. You don’t know how they’ll react, you don’t know what you’ll do. You can’t practice it,” dancer Sarah Chmielewski said.

It’s breaking down this fourth theatrical wall and performing in intimate spaces that provides a very unique experience said Emily Lukasewski and Alexandra Subak, the co-artistic directors of Laboratory Dancers.

The two founded the company after graduating Columbia College Chicago in 2009. Emily came up with the name after going on a “rant” about commercialism and Christmas.

“It was Christmas. I was ranting about these Christmas looking trinkets that were a waste of energy,” Emily said. “What if all that energy could be used for ideas rather than these throw away items? It’s production as in progress like a lab where things are made.”  

The company began performing at a very bohemian “ball hall” where there was very little separation between audience and performer. That space also allowed Laboratory Dancers to perform with bands coming through Chicago from across the US and Canada to audiences that would not typically see modern dance performances. Alexandra and Emily said that led to an early philosophy of collaborative inclusion and a willingness to work with anybody.

These raw beginnings were quickly turned into powerful learning steps as the company expanded and honed in on its craft. Laboratory Dancers hit a high note this past summer for a two-week dance road trip playing their way from Chicago to Seattle.

Nine performers loaded into a van in June sometimes camping in tents and sometimes Couchsurfing across the country with other artists who had passed through the Windy City.

Their journey was filled with great memories and experiences, the Lab Rats agreed. And they hope that elation was passed on to their audiences as well. However, a group of senior citizens from Minneapolis will probably much rather forget about their experience.

Half the retirement home audience just left while others heckled, Alexandra said. But some enjoyed their performance, Emily added.

Life experiences and traveling has certainly fed its emotive nature into various Lab Rats' performances. A captivating set of impulse during Hook & Eye was later described to me as an expression of Emily’s experience in Iceland. 

In one darkened loft space four dancers entered separately into the space emitting cold and chilly vibes. A web of fabric overhead cast a web of shadows on the audience seated in the middle. Dancers swirled around them in an interactive push and pull that explored movement, shifting weight and tensions between performers.  

The Lab Rats shared intimate moments of closeness, moments of recoiling against each other and moments of reaching something unattainable. 

The piece used what Emily called “liquid choreography.” A structure was set with intent for the four dancers involved but artistic impulse was valued above all, even overriding rehearsed choreography.

Each performer was given a range of sometimes conflicting intentions called relatials for the piece, including solitude, attention, physical touch and avoidance. But each dancer is given artistic freedom of improvisation.

“We work together well. It’s the relationships and chemistry between the dancers that make it work. We are all personally invested in the work,” Alexandra said.

It was only due to this working partnership between dancers that the performance was able to be as powerful as it was. The cold isolation of Iceland’s towering winter landscapes was clearly conveyed. But so was the urban ant – Emily’s other inspiration. She was thinking how ants work as a community, but like with people in urban environments, there can be great isolation in a crowd.

Generally, Emily and Alexandra said the creative process often starts with a theme and movement and music is later found to suit the piece.

Other elements are sometimes added. On a recent tour a visual artist joined the group, putting up paper on stage behind the dancers as she attempted to draw the shadows of the dancers as they moved.

Emily said where some dance choreography says move and put your leg here, the Laboratory Dancers' would feel the intent and emotion of the piece that would lead to the movement to the point that already rehearsed movement is allowed to be overridden in performance based on the feeling of the dancer in the moment. 

In another Laboratory Dancers performance, dancers came out clad in silk slips covered in translucent rice paper. As the dance progressed that rice paper began to shred. Emily said the rice paper represented the barriers people put up to intimacy and said the shredding represented those barriers being gradually ripped away.    

Of the Chicago dance scene, Emily said it is big enough to welcome everything yet a very small community. 

In May, Laboratory Dancers will culminate their season with yet another mini-tour showcasing five pieces through various venues in Chicago from traditional performance venues to homes and bars. Alexandra and Emily said they hope to culminate that tour series with a single performance of all five pieces at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts.

Combining their innovation and unique metaphorical inspirations with encapsulating costumes Laboratory Dancers prove that buying a ticket to a live performance is much more than just a commodity, it’s about cherishing the experience and expanding your one’s perspective.

Laboratory Dancers Photographed By Brian Eaves



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