Earlier this month, Rachel Rizzuto, MFA candidate in Dance at Illinois, shared her experiences in the new Smile Politely series, Performing Your Art in a Pandemic.  Weeks later, she prepares to showcase her thesis work, "I'm Ally," at the March 20th virtual performance of March Dance 2021. Rizzuto generously took some time away from her pre-performance preparations to talk with us about what March Dance 2021 will look and feel like, and how its COVID-inspired evolution has impacted her process and her work. 


Smile Politely: Describe what it's been like completing your program under COVID restrictions?

Rachel Rizzuto: COVID restrictions have of course been tough—it's emotionally draining to go to school or, really, do anything during a pandemic—but the dance department has been so incredible about making sure the undergrads and grads have as close to a "normal" experience as possible. That means we've been able to have in-person classes and rehearsals, which have been such a source of community and joy during a tumultuous time, and it also means I've been able to choreograph and produce a thesis concert with a full design and production staff. I honestly can't believe I've been able to do that during a pandemic. It's a real gift.

SP: Dance at Illinois has said that "performances have been reshuffled and simultaneously reinvigorated." How has this been true (or not true for the work you've made for the March Dance 2021 show?

​Rizzuto: The dance department has worked so hard to make sure that we get performance opportunities this year, and although that means the format of the performances themselves has changed—having one work shown per night, for example, and only allowing 40 in-person audience members—it's also meant that people who might not normally get to access our work can do so via the livestream. Knowing that the majority of my audience will be watching via their computer screens has changed a lot about how I frame the work I make, literally and figuratively, and it's also changed the way I think about how the material I create will read to a digital audience member.

Photo of Danzel Thompson-Stout's work in dress rehearsal. Photo by Natalie Fiol
Phoo of  Danzel Thompson-Stout's "The Undying and Resilient,." Photo by Natalie Fiol

SP: What inspired your work? And/or what inspires you?

Rizzuto: ​Upon the recommendation of my husband, who is an MFA in the acting program here and who also performs in my thesis, I started watching the television show Ally McBeal last summer. It's a show that debuted in 1997 and was widely heralded as a feminist, progressive (if quirky—before quirky was even a thing) show. That's why my husband thought I would like it. But watching it, I was appalled. By 2020 standards, it seemed not only anti-feminist but even sexist, verging on misogynistic. And there were so many problematic issues related to the show's treatment of race, too. But even as I was distracted by how frankly sexist and racist the show was, I was also intrigued. At the same time, I was taking a deep dive into feminist narrative theory, and then, eventually, a 20th- and 21st-century timeline of feminism, and how racism has often been subjugated to white feminism. All of that informed my piece, I'm Ally. I was ready to critique this late-'90s touchstone of pop culture even as I was slowly coming to terms with the fact that I share more in common with the show's protagonist than I wanted to admit. The piece I ultimately created is one that I hope doesn't let the TV show or me off the hook.

Photo of Rachel Rizzuto's
Photo of Rachel Rizzuto's "I'm Ally" in dress rehearsal. Photo from Dance at Illinois Facebook page

SP: What's next for you after this showcase?

Rizzuto: ​I'll be finishing my written thesis and trying to plan for what's next, post-graduation—whether that's sticking around in Illinois another year, or moving to another city like New York or DC to keep making art and teaching.

Photo of Roxane D’Orleans Juste's
Photo of Roxane D’Orleans Juste's "Délivrance" in dress rehearsal. Photo from Dance at Illinois Facebook page.  

As a longtime enthusiast of modern dance, each year I look to March Dance for new voices, new visions, and new mashups of influences, styles, and forms. This year, as with so much else. March Dance will be different. And though audience members and dancers will miss the alchemical exhange of live performance, this program promises to deliver something special. We'll get to witness emerging artists "engaging ideas and social phenomena ranging from transformational hip hop choreography to future visions of ephemera, feminist critiques of television and movement, and multimedia expressions of Black identity and disability." 

A 40-minute talkback will follow each performance. Use this time to connect with these talented artists and provide them with the interactions and reactions they dearly miss. And don't forget to use your technology to comment, share, and engage. 

March Dance 2021
Dance at Illinois
March 18th through 21st, 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.
Free, livestreamed here

March 18th, 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Work by Danzel Thompson-Stout. This performance includes strobe lighting.
Marcjh 19th, 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Work by Roxane D’Orleans Juste.
March 20th, 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Work by Rachel Rizzuto. This performance contains adult language and is intended for mature audiences only.
March 21st,  7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Work by Jaylen De’Angelo Clay. This performance contains adult content that involves sudden loud noises, visual imagery of violence, and partial nudity and is intended for mature audiences only.

Each performance will also be available on the Dance at Illinois's Vimeo channel as individual videos from March 22nd through April 5th.

Get more information here.

Top photo from the Dance at Illinois Facebook page