Company Spotlight: Winifred Haun & Dancers

Editor’s note: With this article Dance/USA’s From the Green Room begins a series of articles focusing on member dance companies and their model programs. These companies were randomly selected to be featured during the annual membership renewal campaign.

Modest Budget, Major Works

By Lisa Traiger

Winifred Haun, center, rehearses her dancers on stage, photo by Matthew Gregory HollisWhen Winifred Haun founded her eponymous dance company Winifred Haun & Dancers in Chicago in 1991, she was interested in making choreographic work – her own. Unexpected were all the ups and downs as the company grew and contracted, following Haun’s own life path, as a dancer, a teacher, a choreographer, and a mother. A dancer for seven years with Joseph Holmes Dance Theater, also in Chicago, she left that full-time job with its enviable 52-week contract to go it on her own. Her first gig? One that the Holmes company couldn’t fit in its touring schedule, so it was passed off to Haun.

These days, nearly a quarter of a century later, Haun’s small company, where dancers are paid for rehearsals and performances, continues to make interesting investigative pieces. She has found a way to structure long-range projects, some taking one to three years to fully evolve to world premiere status, while also giving birth to and raising three daughters along the way. The company’s annual budget is modest, at just around $100,000, and benefits tremendously from pro bono rehearsal space at Hubbard Street Dance in Chicago, where Haun teaches between eight and ten classes a week.

She’s remounted her 2013 piece, “Vision, Faith and Desire,” a project that looks back honoring the past, particularly Haun’s along with other dancers and teachers. “That is definitely a project I would never have done in my 20s or 30s. At least for me in my 20s and 30s, I was not looking back; I was looking ahead,” says Haun, now 51. “That project in a very public way recognized influences in my work. My work would not have been as strong if I hadn’t studied Martha Graham technique with Graham teachers who were in her company,” she says. “They gave me a lot of tools and creativity and structure – all that good stuff that really helped my work. When I thought about that, I thought that the artists works that I tend to respond the most to are likewise.” Haun’s goal was to publically acknowledge her own influences and have others do the same. Among those joining Haun in the creative process of this piece was dancer Lizzie Leopold, a student of Peter Sparling’s at University of Michigan. Among the choreographer’s teachers she wanted to honor were Harriett Ross, who studied with Graham and at Juilliard in the 1950s; Joseph Holmes who took classes with Pearl Lang in the 1970s; Peter Sparling, a principal dancer with Graham in the 1970s and ‘80s; and Thea Nerissa Barnes, who performed with both the Graham and Ailey companies.

Winifred Haun’s “Promise” with dancers Erika Gilfether and Andrew Adams, photo by Douglas BeningIn March 2015, Haun restages “Promise” at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts in Chicago, an ambitious full-evening work based on John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden. First presented in 2009, the piece took three years of research and development for Haun, who delved deeply into the novel  exploring the images and psychological themes of the female characters in the novel, whom Steinbeck gave short shrift in his story of violence and redemption.

“Promise” features a cast of more than 20 dancers, including an aerial component. Choreographed by Haun in 2009, she says, “I realized I didn’t need to retell the story. We have the book, but I realized there are two women in the book that Steinbeck didn’t really flesh out and I thought there’s got to be more to these women than that.”

Scaling Up and Taking Time

As Haun’s choreography evolved from her company’s early days, when performances were often community based and poorly compensated, she began to tackle larger, fuller scale and evening-length works that required her long-term commitment to both artistic collaborators and to dancers, and also provided more artistic stimulation and visibility. She advises other dancemakers who wish to tackle their own large-scale or long-term works not to be afraid to let them take time. “So often we say: ‘I’ve got this great idea and we need to get it up in three months,’” she said, in order to satisfy a presenter or a self-directed motivation to constantly make new choreography to keep the company in the public eye. “Instead, let it take time,” Haun says. “Don’t be afraid to show work-in-progress. It’s better to have eight really good minutes than 16 that are not so good.”

She also advises artists to “get help and get partners.” Those partners can be artistic partners – designers, painters, writers, and others who contribute their collaborative ideas to the work. But Haun also emphasizes that partners can be individual donors. “I’ve learned how important it is to apply for grants,” she says. “But I also learned not to be afraid of asking people, individual donors, for small amounts like $100,” she adds. “Getting support from individual donors, smaller crowd-sourced funding, that helps people become invested in your work.”

“Promise” with dancers Joey Schuman and Kevin Dirckson, photo by Cheryl MannA partner in a project can also be a person or a group of people willing to give funding to a project. “That’s something else I’ve learned: to apply for grants,” Haun says, “and not be afraid to ask people, individual donors, for $100 you know. Getting support from individual donors, smaller, crowd-sourcing funding, that also helps people get invested in your work, too.

Finally, Haun advises dance artists that one way she found to maintain her sanity was to take ample time off each year. When her first daughter was born in 1996, she took just a few weeks off and was back in the office, the studio and on stage soon, perhaps too soon. Subsequently, she learned to give herself more time away, particularly with the births of her next two children.

Did these leaves of  absence during her daughters’ early years hurt the company? Maybe, Haun said, “but we managed to come back. The company is where we were before.” She alluded to the oft-held excuse of maternity leave and family obligations as the reason why women in many fields, not just dance, earn less than men. “I don’t think that’s it,” she says, “because men take time off. Men bounce from job to job. There’s really nice work being done by male choreographers in Chicago. They’re getting a lot of attention – the work is good, very strong dancers, they’re organized.” But she continues, noting that she’s been around long enough to know that women of the same caliber often don’t get the same recognition – and not just because they have children and families.

“In our society, the work of women, whatever that work is, is not as valued as the work of men,” Haun adds. “If you take two artistic directors – I’ll keep it to dance – but it also applies to other occupations, from General Motors to The New York Times – if you look at the work of a man and a woman and put them side to side, they are still paid less and receive less recognition. Today, she says, “the work of the male choreographer will be seen as much more important in the press and [the press] will more easily respond to his work.”

So as Haun moves into her 25th season as a small, single-choreographer company, she insists on herself breaks. “Not a lot of artists do this: take a break,” Haun says, exhorting dancers and choreographers to take real time off. She did that earlier this winter, traveling to New Zealand with her husband for a family visit. “It was wonderful to be so far away and not to do anything work related,” she says. “I get wrapped up in the work, but a break is so important.”

Lisa TraigerLisa Traiger edits Dance/USA’s From the Green Room and writes frequently on dance, theater and the performing arts from the Washington, D.C., region.


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