Joffrey Ballet dancer Hyuma Kiyosawa on set during the shoot for Interim Avoidance. Michael Kettenbeil, Courtesy Action Lines.

Action Lines' Digital Art Installation, Starring Joffrey Dancers, Brings Virtual Ballet to the Chicago Public

This past year, dance has taken a flying leap into the world of virtual performance, with dancer-led enterprises emerging along the way. Laptops and television screens have hence erupted as leading performance venues. But for the new Chicago-based production company Action Lines, co-founded by Joffrey Ballet artists Xavier "Xavi" Núñez and Dylan Gutierrez, and film producer Eric Grant, dance has found another home: a 3,300-square-foot media-installation wall in downtown Chicago.


Now through April 30, 150 Media Stream, a digital art installation platform housed in the lobby of the 150 North Riverside skyscraper, hosts Action Lines' Interim Avoidance, a new project featuring six dancers from The Joffrey Ballet. Dylan Gutierrez, Hyuma Kiyosawa, Dara Holmes, Olivia Duryea, Edson Barbosa and Jeraldine Mendoza pirouette, saut de chat and cabriole across the building's lobby in this massive, seven-minute looping media stream. Designed as a reflection on dance in divided space, Interim Avoidance marks Action Lines' first step into curated work.

We spoke with Núñez, Gutierrez and Grant about their first commission.

In the glass lobby of a building, a panel of LED blades stretches along the wall and features a film showing the images of four female dancers from the waist up.

Joffrey Ballet dancers Dara Holmes and Jeraldine Mendoza in Interim Avoidance on the 150 Media Stream installation in downtown Chicago.

Olivia Duryea, Courtesy Action Lines

Action Lines is a very new company. How did you get started?

Xavier Núñez: It was about a year in the making. The three of us got together and decided to make a short film; it was more nonchalant—this was all before the pandemic. We realized then in making our first video, "Circles," that we worked really well together. Then once quarantine hit, we found ourselves still wanting to make things.

Dylan Gutierrez: When we all sat down together in the middle of summer, we felt that it was the perfect time to start it.

XN: Action Lines officially became a company in early November, and then a week later we were contracted to do the 150 Media Stream project. We jumped right into it!

That's a quick transition! How did Action Lines get involved with 150 Media Stream?

DG: I was introduced to the curator of 150 Media Stream, Yuge Zhou, by a mutual friend. We began discussing our new company and how we wanted to get started on some projects. We pitched the idea that [virtual performances] are where dance is going to exist this year because the Joffrey had had to cancel its winter program. Once she heard the idea, she bought it right away, and we got to work.

The pandemic has affected the way we all work as artists. What was your creative process like for this project?

Eric Grant: Where Xavi and Dylan have a keen eye for visuals and dance in storytelling, I bring the visual language of film. In a lot of our meetings, they come in with a certain set of skills and I say, "Okay, how can we take what you want to do and make it make sense for a viewer of a film, rather than a stage production?"

DG: What's great is that Eric will give us a suggestion movement-wise, and it will be something absolutely valid. While it may not have been something Xavi and I might have thought of, I think that adds to our creativity as a whole.

XN: There was a lot of pre-production planning that went into this. Initially, the stream was just going to be dancers in slow motion in a black void, but then it evolved. We added color to it because we knew it would be the dead of winter, and we wanted to do something really bright so it would pop. We filmed in Joffrey's Gerald Arpino studio, which is basically a black-box theater, so we had complete control of the lighting. We also outsourced our director of photography with a company called Big Foot Media. Tim Whalen and Michael Kettenbeil handled the videography portion. Because we knew the dancers, we were then able to direct them and say, "This is the kind of angle we're looking for here."

Jeraldine Mendoza, wearing a brown bra-top and briefs and pointe shoes, stands in tendu devant en face on her left leg. Her arms reach straight down with flexed hands as light from above pools around her on the darkened stage.

Jeraldine Mendoza performs a section of Interim Avoidance while a cameraman shoots from the side.

Michale Kettenbeil, Courtesy Action Lines.

How did you navigate filming during the pandemic?

XN: The Joffrey has really strict pandemic rules within the studios, so each dancer had to be filmed independently of each other.

DG: Each of them had a 45-minute block, then there'd be a 15-minute airing-out period. Then the next person had to start on the dot. It was really scheduled.

EG: I was so impressed with Joffrey's COVID restrictions. They already knew how the airflow was going to work, and it influenced how we constructed the story. We said, "How do we now create a story where we're filming everybody individually and cutting it to make it look like they're together again?"

XN: We're used to filming one video at a time. Because of the epic size of this installation, it was more like filming four separate videos into one and having the shots interact with each other. There are times when they're layered over each other, and it makes it seem like the dancers are in the same room together.

DG: The editing was so involved. But that's why the project looks so incredible. Especially with the slow motion, you actually have time to see everything that's happening.

Hyuma Kiyosawa wears nude booty shorts and stands in front of a pink backdrop with his arms crossed at his bare chest. He watches Xavier N\u00fa\u00f1ez, who is in front of him in street clothes and lunges ardently onto his left leg. He has a camera looped around his chest and looks over his right shoulder towards Kiyosawa.

Xavier Núñez (right) offers direction to Hyuma Kiyosawa during the shoot.

Courtesy Action Lines

What is the concept behind the piece?

DG: We're using the media wall as if it's a living thing⁠—like it's the only place these dancers can exist. At first they're kind of confused why they're there, but then they realize that it's their space to dance. Then they disappear before it repeats again. It's this looping dream…the only place we can do what we want to do at the moment.

How did this process differ from working on a choreographic project designed for the theater?

XN: There was a lot we didn't know about planning and logistics. As dancers, we rarely think about how many people are involved in making something happen—from the crew to PR and marketing. It's really opened our eyes to be able to see the full picture, as opposed to just the art itself.

Looking to the future, do you have any plans or visions for where you'd like Action Lines to go?

XN: Once I'm done dancing, I want to be able to say that we have something we can transition into full-time—something that we all love to do.

DG: I think we're in a really privileged position to be able to start this right now, because the opportunity to do good work is huge when you're starting out. We have a fresh perspective, but also one that's relatable beyond dancers. We want everyone to see themselves in our work. I see big things for us in the future.

For more information and access to an adapted online version of Interim Avoidance, check out the 150 Media Stream website.


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Here, Ball and two other experts share their advice for how to make the most of this precious opportunity to dive deep into dance—and how to handle complications that may get in the way, like injury and drama.

1. Show Off...Your Work Ethic

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Angelica Generosa, a principal with Pacific Northwest Ballet, clearly made a splash during her first of three summers at the Chautauqua Institution's School of Dance. At 14, she was cast to dance the pas de deux from Balanchine's Stars and Stripes in the final performance. Generosa describes her younger self as "very eager." She'll be a guest teacher at Chautauqua this summer, and says that a similar eagerness catches her attention: "Dedication, and willingness to try. That twinkle in the eyes when a step is really challenging."

2. Make Friends

Even if friends from your year-round school will be with you this summer, branch out. During breaks at the studio, you may be tempted to spend time on your phone. "Take your headphones off," suggests Margaret Severin-Hansen, director of Carolina Ballet's summer intensive. "Share that ballet video with the person sitting next to you! Their eyes might see it differently; you could learn something. Or find that you have other things in common, too."

Do things outside the studio, too, even if your social circle is limited for safety reasons to a "pod" of classmates. "Sign up for activities," says Generosa. Go on that weekend shopping trip, or out for ice cream. "Be open," she says. "These are people you might see along the way in your future."

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If you are recovering from an injury or managing something persistent like tendonitis, take action even further in advance. Find out if your intensive provides access to physical therapy, and if not, make a plan before you leave home. Learn exercises and massage techniques that you can do on your own, and ask about virtually checking in with your regular doctor or PT. Once you arrive, says Ball, communicate with your instructors. "Chances are it's a common ballet injury that teachers understand. They'll be able to help you."

During her summer intensives, Generosa often suffered flare-ups of inflammation. "I knew the tendonitis in my knees was from over turning out, and in my ankles from lifting my heels in plié." She was able to alleviate some of her pain by dancing more thoughtfully, addressing those habits. She also got creative about taking care of her tendons during off-hours. "I basically did ice baths in Chautauqua Lake."

4. Deal With Disappointment Constructively

Whether you're placed in a lower level than you'd like or were hoping for a soloist role that went to someone else, disappointment is understandable. Try, on your part, to understand too. The faculty may believe you'll thrive more in that particular group, or see a technical issue better solved by not pushing you too fast. If you're not sure exactly what you should be working on, ask. "Trust that you can make the most of your experience, whatever level you're in," says Ball. "Don't be afraid of the conversation."

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Competition is inevitable, but unproductive competition is unnecessary, and bullying unacceptable. Severin-Hansen lays down a very clear guideline: "Nobody should ever feel uncomfortable." If you hear or see anything that bothers you—whether directed at you or someone else—don't hesitate to speak up. "If there's even one person creating drama, you feel it in the class. Summer is short. There's no room for that." Tell the resident advisor in the dorms, or bring the problem to the school administration.

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Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Angelica Generosa (shown here in rehearsal with Kyle Davis) made notes of corrections she'd received and variations she'd worked on during her summer intensives to help retain what she had learned.

Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB

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Depending on your housing arrangement this summer, you may be on your own for buying or preparing your own meals. Generosa recalls her first time living in a dorm and eating cafeteria food: "I wanted to try everything: pizza, chicken tenders, the salad bar, the dessert section—that was also my introduction to coffee." She found, however, that caffeine and sugar rushes would give way to energy crashes, and soon enough her better knowledge prevailed. "I told myself, 'Angelica, get your protein, vegetables, complex carbs—the right kind of energy.'"

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At the end of her Chautauqua summers, Generosa made notes of some things she had worked on and which variations she'd learned. "Then it wasn't like I left and that was that. I brought the summer experience with me, for my whole year."

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