When the Joffrey Ballet decided to commission a new story ballet for kids, it turned to a trifecta of female creatives: a choreographer who worked with pop megastar Beyoncé on one of her world tours, a writer who drew on her experience as a Puerto Rican transplant, and an illustrator who specialized in designing children’s books.
In their hands, the production Rita Finds a Home tells the story of the migrant experience from the perspective of a child – and is wholly unlike classical ballets that tend to dominate ballet company repertoires.
“I really wanted to do this piece as a little bit of an homage to the spirit of survival,” said the writer, Karla Estela Rivera, who teamed up with illustrator Elisa Chavarri and choreographer Amy Hall Garner for the project. “I thought about my own experience and the joy that I have of living here. We are in times that, for migrant and immigrant families and children, there are a lot of challenges that those communities face. But there’s also a lot of joy.”
The ballet, which will be performed for free on July 9 and 10 on Navy Pier, will feature 13 dancers and runs a family-friendly 40 minutes. All of the performances in its debut weekend are free, a fact that is important to Rivera. “I am a product of free programming, and what municipal and philanthropic investments in the arts can do for young people.”
The idea for the ballet originated in 2019 on a nearly three hours-long train ride from Galesburg, Ill., that Rivera took alongside Erica Lynette Edwards, a former Joffrey dancer and director of community engagement. They had met at a conference in Galesburg and took the train ride as an opportunity to talk shop.
Although Rivera primarily focused her writing for the theater and had never written for dance or ballet, Edwards asked her if she would be interested in working on a narrative for a children’s ballet. Rivera, who was intimidated by the idea of making a piece for a medium that was unfamiliar to her, recalls Edwards asking her, “Hey, you’re a storyteller, aren’t you? That’s all you need.”
Edwards’ flexible, multidisciplinary outlook shaped Rivera’s entire approach.
Rivera, who is the executive director of the Free Street Theater and a co-chair of the Illinois Fine Arts Indicator group, drew from her own experience. The writer moved from Mayagüez, Puerto Rico to Albany Park during elementary school. In Rita Finds a Home, the title character is a middle-school-aged girl and artist who migrates from a tropical island to a large city in the aftermath of a major hurricane.
When the creative trio pitched the performance to the Joffrey at the end of the summer in 2019, Hurricane Maria, which struck Puerto Rico two years prior, was fresh on Rivera’s mind. “We still have family on the island,” Rivera said.
In addition to her personal experience, Rivera had worked welcoming Puerto Ricans to Chicago in the wake of Hurricane Maria. “I remember meeting a family that had just arrived on Thanksgiving Day. You come from heat and beauty and beaches and green to cold Chicago on Thanksgiving.”
Each of the three collaborators says that the performance ushered in an opportunity to experiment creatively. For Rivera and Chavarri, it was their first time working on a dance performance. For Garner, who designed choreography for Beyoncé’s The Mrs. Carter Show World Tour and the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s production of The Color Purple, the project offered a chance to create a narrative ballet, which requires more adherence to the text than her typical work in jazz, modern and tap dance.
The soundtrack covers a wide spectrum of tempos, from upbeat rhythm and percussion to brassy trumpets during a hurricane scene. Garner selected the music for the performance and the roughly ten tracks include music from artists like the Spark Quintet and Paco de Lucía.
“I’m a fan and advocate of getting young people in the arts and getting them exposed to arts and especially dance and ballet,” said Garner, adding that for some in the audience, “it will be their first experience seeing a ballet. I just want it to be something that they love.”
In particular, Garner hopes that the production will speak to young girls. “We’re all women and we wanted to have something that just empowered young girls,” Garner said. The production stars 13 pre-professional performers between the ages of 15 and 20 performing this work for the first time.
“No one else has done this before, they are the first to do it,” Garner said. ”They have ownership of it.”
Chavarri, who specializes in creating illustrations for children’s books like My Little Golden Book about Frida Kahlo, was excited by the possibility of taking her art from the page to the stage. “It’s just amazing to get to draw a little concept on paper and have somebody else help bring it to life. That’s been the incredible, mind-blowing part for me,” says Chavarri, who came up with the idea of creating city crowns for the dancers to wear, including one alluding to the antennae of the John Hancock building.
But working on the production brought its share of challenges. The premiere of Rita Finds a Home was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Plus, the collaborators’ various residences – Chavarri lives in Michigan, Garner resides in New York and Rivera is based out of Chicago – complicated the creative process.
As the collaborators added their final touches to the production before its premiere, Rivera recalled images of ballet dancers performing in the rubble left behind by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico that circulated online in 2018. “It has been really overwhelming,in a good way, to see how every single person involved in this work has taken ownership of it and has really met the creative challenges of this work in a really beautiful way.” Similar to Rivera’s embrace of the unknown, Rita Finds a Home discovers strength and art in the unfamiliar.
If you go: Rita Finds a Home, a co-production with Miami City Ballet, will premiere on Saturday, July 9 and Sunday, July 10, with performances on both days at 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. at the Navy Pier Lake Stage at Polk Bros Park. There will be additional performances on Thursday, July 14 at 6:30 p.m. at Harrison Park in Pilsen; on Friday, July 15 at 6:30 p.m. at Hale Park in Clearing; on Saturday, July 16 at 3:00 p.m. at Eugene Field Park in Albany Park; and on Sunday, July 17 at Music by the Lake at 350 Constance Blvd in Williams Bay, Wis.
Correction: The story has been updated to reflect that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.