12 | KRIS RHODES
Kris Rhodes doesn't really need an introduction if you've spent any amount of time in the Chicago dance community. He has fashioned his mark on the Chicago community throughout his more than 17 years of dance, whether it be through the various companies he's been a part of or through his own artistic endeavors. Kris has been to the moon and back, traveling around the world to perform, teach, and create.
This is the Kris Rhodes I've known throughout my own experiences in the dance community, as the teacher and performer. But throughout my interview with Kris, it became clear that the constant drive for Kris' dance journey was his role not as a teacher, but as a student.
"People end up doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. I think that's the definition of insanity."
For Kris, seeking out new movement and inspiration is familiar ground. Whether it be through his dance experiences abroad or his work in our home town, it is this desire to constantly learn that drives him to continually create work that not only celebrates himself as an individual but also gives back to our Chicago community.
"My life was pretty much planned out."
So Kris Rhodes starts dancing at the age of four. He grew up in a very traditional ballet program at Chicago Ballet Arts, where he learned ballet was the first and primary mode of dance. Unlike many of us who may have started dancing later on in middle school or later, Kris already had a preset path. After training several years at Chicago Ballet Arts, his ballet teacher sent Kris to join a Russian technique company for training, then join Joffrey Ballet. The ultimate goal was for Kris to perform overseas in Europe, among other places.
But if you know Kris, that’s clearly not how things played out. Kris' curiosity to explore other forms of dance led to a Nonstop dance class that his mother took him to. He. Was. Hooked.
Kris: “My ballet teacher had my life pretty much planned out, and then once I got into Nonstop, everything changed and I was like, “I wanna be a hip-hop dancer! 😍
My mom was like, ‘sh*t.’” 😅
When you know what you want, you know. You know? Kris couldn’t sit still. Now, Kris wanted to do everything - capoeira, hip-hop, martial arts, modern. Visceral Dance Center became a destination Kris frequented to explore other movement styles outside of ballet or contemporary. He diverged from the preset path pushed forward by his ballet teacher and joins companies including Nonstop and ReDefinition, Dance2XS Chicago, Puzzle League and CODA. Kris still maintained his ballet training, teaching at Joffrey downtown, and also performing as a part of the Joffrey Ballet nutcracker for 4 years in a row.
It was during this period of his life he also met Domé Lorusso, another central figure in the Chicago dance community, who was involved with one of his earlier groups, Pure Renditionz. (History insight: Pure Renditionz merges with another group to create Ti3, which ultimately becomes the precursor to Hip Hop ConnXion Downtown in 2007. HHC Downtown later then reemerges as Hip Hop ConnXion Primo (Downtown) after merging with Primo Dance Troupe at UIC. There's like a wholeeee lineage there.) As for Kris, he runs with ConnXion Downtown for a while before then joins 2XS, eventually becoming it’s co-director. So by this point, Kris has already been moving around. A LOT.
Kris: “I was really shamed for joining all these different groups at once. (laughs) People were like, you’re not supposed to do that. It was a time when you were supposed to stay with one company and be loyal to it and that was your whole thing. I was like, that’s not fair because I wanted to learn and experience everything that was offered. I wanted to be well-versed. I wanted everything at that moment. And hey – people are talking sh*t but hey I got my training so…” 😝
Kris and Domé conceive Vicious in the midst of all that, which has become one of Kris' biggest creative outlets. This was toward the end of his time with 2XS, and he sat down with Domé with a general idea of creating a group to push social norms and just infuse new energy on stage.
Kris: “Domé and I were like – let’s try it out. We got a bunch of people together during an Urbanite, and we really liked it – it was dope. It became a thing from there. We kept doing Urbanite, we did all the college shows, we did Prelude and competed.
I think that’s when I learned I didn’t really want to compete anymore. I wanted to do everything for myself, I never wanted to do it for anyone else. Coming from an era when Youtube, Facebook, and all that social media didn’t exist, it didn’t matter how many numbers you had, it didn’t matter who knew your name, all that mattered was if you could dance or not.
If you went back in the day and talked to someone who did 2XS and said, ‘Hey, you know I have 500 people looking at my Myspace?’
They’d be like, “Okay. Can you dance?” 🙄
Kris ends up doing Chicago shows over and over, and, as is a constant in Kris’ journey, he wanted to keep moving. Let's put a pause on Kris' Chicago endeavors for now.
Out of State and Overseas
Kris: “You saw those classes and it’s like 'oh I really wanna be in that.' I liked the idea of seeing these amazing dancers and being put in that pack of dancers and being like 'Good luck. Try not to eff this up.' I wanted more at that point.
So I decided to leave and go to LA. I didn’t tell anyone. I was like, I’m out.” 😅
Kris wanted anonymity. He didn’t want to be famous or want anyone to know about him. Kris just wanted to be able to take any class and and immerse himself in that enrivonment. So he went - simple as that. He ended up staying in LA for a year and hustled, training with pretty much everybody: Laura Edwards, Candace Brown, a few vogue classes here and there.
Kris: “I wanted to be a jack of all trades but a master of none so that I would always have room to grow. I wanted to more so do it for myself, and then as an artist for choreography. I wanted my movement to be versatile. That’s where I get my class name at the Puzzle Box now – Versatile Movement – because I wanted to be versatile at different things. So that when I hear a song, I can adjust to it accordingly. Whether it be a poppy song, and hip hop song, more vogue song, or whatever.
To that end, Kris found what he was searching for in LA. He did a work-study at Debbie Reynolds, and through that lens he got to establish connections and learn what made the industry tick. Admittedly though, something was missing. Kris was getting a little homesick.
Kris: “I kind of got a little tired of (sigh)...I don't know, being in Chicago is very genuine, and being in LA is very ‘Hey, how are you and walk off,’ and I didn’t like that.
I think I went to LA a little too soon, so it kind of jaded me a little as a person, but in a good way – if I didn’t go through that I wouldn’t be the person that I am today, so obviously life lessons, hey.”
So Kris looks to return to the Windy City, but it wasn’t long before Kris made another move again. Someone at an audition Kris attended was involved in the international dance industry in China, and he invited Kris to go on tour.
China was a free-spirited decision. Kris didn’t have anything going on, so he jumped at the chance to experience the international scene. Kris quickly found that his schedule was planned down to the minute. Dance life in China was fast-paced, full of teaching classes, performance opportunities, TV shows, and lots of clubbing and partying and shopping. Yet, his experience didn’t come without its own obstacles.
Kris: “There was no in between; everything was set. I didn’t have too much of a say in anything I did. So when I first got there and taught everything was okay, because I was teaching everything, and it was on my terms. But I lowkey found out that I ended up owing money to the person that was supposed to be paying me, so I got screwed over in the long run. (Kris notes that a huge important lesson here is to know your contracts like the back of your hand before committing.)
But during that time I also taught at a studio out in Beijing. This studio happened to be one of the biggest dance studios in China. Anyone that needed dancers or choreographers went through this studio or another one of the big studios. The owner of that studio caught wind of my financial situation and ended up paying off all of my debt and took me underneath his wing. So as soon as I started working for him, I was like an international contract for them.
I did any and everything that this man said, and there would be times when I would be out for a TV show in like Hainan, and we would practice Monday through Wednesday, and then they would fly me out to another city or town. I would get to the venue and they would say don’t mess up. If you do, you’re fired. And you’re like…oh….okay. And just go. You didn’t have a choice, and after that you’d come back to do the TV show on the weekend, and have to choreograph and do all this stuff. It was a learning experience, and it was really crazy to see the industry unhinged like that.
There was one specific instance where I ended up waiting in a single room for 24 hours waiting for performing artists to get there, even though the hotel was down the street. Things often didn't make sense and I didn't know what was going on most of the time.”
A year of LA, then a year of China. That's a tall order. It's understandable why Kris wanted to just chill for a minute upon returning to Chicago. It was a time for self-reflection and taking a step away from dance just to breathe. Gradually, he stepped back into dance in the Chicago scene, teaching at The Lab Dance Studio (now closed, btw), and also at Visceral. Recently, he’s also been teaching at the Puzzle Box, and mostly creating through Vicious. While Domé isn’t involved with the Vicious too much anymore, Kris still attributes him as one of his biggest influences.
Kris: “We’re still friends, I just think we’ve kind of gone our separate ways in life artistically. I still have mad respect for him, mad love for him, I wouldn’t be where I am at without him. He’s one of the main people I trained under. Between him and Sonya Bunge with NonStop - I wouldn’t be where I am without him. He’s still teaching, too. He ain’t playing no games.”
Since its inception, Vicious has evolved to be a broader creative outlet for Kris, whether that be through dance performances, videos, fashion, or short films. In the same way that Kris appreciated the anonymity in Los Angeles, he appreciates the perks of being in the background when it comes to Vicious. It’s a way for him to do what he wants without attaching his name so explicitly to the foreground.
Kris: “Yeah – it’s kind of like a blindside kind of thing. I think when I say my name people have this expectation, but with Vicious I can kind of jump anywhere and do anything I want, and the name comes afterwards. I don’t have to one-up myself every time."
John: "So you’ve got this show coming up this week. Can you talk about the idea behind this specific show, how is it different how is it similar?"
Kris: "So the first Vicious show - I just wanted to put on my own show for the longest. I‘ve always wanted to have my own show for Chicago by Chicago. Not a show that just comes into the city, takes money from the city and doesn’t really do anything or represent Chicago in the right light. So for this one, it’s like, ‘hey, let’s have fun and do it.
I called the show Imposters. It’s basically my rendition of some of my most favorite artists. So you have Bob Fosse, Missy Elliot, Britney Spears…those three are like some big heavy hitters for me I’ve always looked up to. And in a sense – people I’ve always wanted to create for. This is my way of saying this is what I would have done if I had been able to work for them or shed a light on them in my own circumstance.
As far as the show as a whole, I wanted to create an experience. I don’t like when people are like paying $100 to stand in a random field with a bunch of people you don’t know and listen to music you don’t like. I wanted to create an ambiance. You’re paying $20 generally. You get a glass of champagne. Hor d'oeuvres are going to be served throughout the evening. I have a hula hooper – she’s one of my really good friends. I just want to do something different.”
There are drink specials too, inspired by the general theme of the show. You can drink the Missy Elliot. Or the Britney Spears. You can even sample the Kris Rhodes. Not sure what you want to get? No worries – there's a wheel you can spin that will choose your drink for you. The show itself is pretty interactive with the audience, you watch it and you’ll want to dance with it too. And every act in the show will have it’s own cast of dancers to differentiate things.
Kris: "I don’t like saying it because I was the original one who was like 'I’m going to perform five times in one show,' but I think I’m getting tired of going to shows and seeing the same dancers up there act after act after act. It doesn’t really give it any mystery or presentation. You know, you see it once, and you’re like...okay cool – oh! You changed your outfit. Oh! Still full out! Awesome. 😂
I just want to bring something different to the table and I want this to be bigger and better every time. I want to be able to get my dancers paid, get sponsors out there, get news coverage there, and create something for Chicago that was supposed to have been here all along. You know what I mean? I really want something that’s for us that people come to Chicago to see. Something that actually represents us in a wonderful light.
I think that’s why I don’t do as many shows. Back in the day I did all the shows because I wanted the experience but after so many years, its become: What does this do for me? What does this do for my city? What does this do for everybody else? It takes two to tango, and I just think there should be a push to a pull.
The Best Thing; The Next Thing
John: "What about Chicago keeps you coming back? It seems that you've gone to LA, and then to China, but you keep coming back home. What is it about our city that draws you in?
Kris: "I have to say it’s the people. It’s the people and it’s the community. I think putting so much blood, sweat, tears, and dance in Chicago in general and seeing it grow, and watching other people build their own names and their own following and have their own voices - I think it’s a beautiful thing. I like supporting and giving back to the community that’s given back so much to me. For example, I think about the first Hip Hop ConnXion show I saw – if I didn’t see that show, I’d probably be off somewhere in Europe, being a ballet dancer.
It’s my city. And I think everyone here is so genuine, and people care about each other. There’s no fakeness. It’s very unique. It's very loving. It's very caring. People care. That’s the biggest thing. And yeah, there’s drama, but that’s everywhere – you’re never going to leave that. I just love this city too much not to come back to it.
I think the reason I do travel a lot is that I’ll hit a point where I’m stuck in a point that I can’t inspire others so I have to go out and get myself to square one and get motivated so I can come back and be a leader in a sense, and be someone that can help people grow into the artists that they are meant to be."
John: "What does our community need the most of at this point in time?
Kris: "I think that one of the things is drive. Comparing LA to Chicago, I wouldn’t say there’s a big difference in talent by any means. I think Chicago has so much talent to offer – just as much as LA, ESPECIALLY IN CREATIVITY. People in Chicago are so creative: they have their own movement, style, ethic, whatever. In LA what I see is a lot of dancers take a bunch of classes, get real dope, start teaching classes, but then the movement they're teaching is what they’ve just taken from other people and calling it their own. And I don’t call that genuine or artistry – that’s just fake.
People in Chicago have their own voices. I think the only that needs to change is drive. When people are out in LA to take classes, nobody has their phones out, ain’t nobody texting. And if they are, they won’t get the piece. People aren’t going at it because they have the night off and want to work out. It’s their livelihoods, it’s their job, it's their everything.
I think people in Chicago are a little worried about the wrong things. You know, it’s important to have a voice and a name and a following, but at the end of the day, can you dance? What can you offer artistically. If you can’t get up here and do this 8 count what does it matter? I think that’s the biggest thing that gets me irritated."
That also makes me think about companies. I’m down for companies all day every day, but you can also go so far. Don’t deny yourself opportunities because you have rehearsal. I hear this all the time because people are like ooh I can’t do this thing because I have rehearsal. And I understand that you have to dedicate the time to something that you are committed to. I totally get it. That’s the noble thing to do. But again, sometimes you have to make sacrifices if you really want to get to where you want to be as an artist, because it could be that one class, that one audition, that one rehearsal that was asked of you that you missed. You just missed an opportunity to be a better artist because you stuck to one thing.
Simply dancing in a company doesn’t mean #dancelife. Dance life is so many other things. When I went to LA, I had 500 in my pocket and didn’t have a place to stay. I was at these auditions. I was at these classes. I was doing it. I was really trying to make a name for myself and try to survive. That’s dance life. Not you going to the same company rehearsals and doing the same shows, and not getting anything back from it because you haven’t made that general sacrifice to make yourself better. I don’t consider that a real dance life.
Push yourself out of your comfort zone so you can see the world. Stop looking at the same things and doing the same things and expecting a different outcome. I think that’s the definition of insanity. If one of your most famous choreographers is in town for an audition and you have rehearsal, are you going to make the sacrifice and go because that’s the one time that the choreographer is going to be there or are you going to go back to the same rehearsal and do the same thing and not change and not grow? And obviously in different circumstances you can’t do that everytime, but again, you have to pick and choose your battles and you can’t make everyone happy. Like it sucks, but that's the way life is."
John: "How do you feel about social media as well? I know you mentioned the pre-social media days and how things have changed since then."
Kris: "People need to stop dancing so much for the public eye and start doing it for themselves. Like okay, you have this cool video that has a billion likes, but what are you doing for yourself outside of that that is going to help you in the long run?
If you’re just focused on that public eye and making yourself look good, then you try to go to LA to audition, you'll find that you can’t keep up because you didn’t focus on taking that ballet class. Or that contemporary class. Or that modern class. Or that African class. So that if anything comes up that I’m not familiar with, at least prepare for it. But it’s like now about having Klout and looking good online. But the question is still - can you dance?
John: "Who are your biggest influences?"
Kris: "Tough question. I have so many influences. I think right now I try not to keep an eye on many other choreographers. I like what I like. I don’t like comparing myself to others because I think that’s when you start to fail. And that’s not to say 'oh ho ho I'm better,' but iI try to find inspiration within myself because nowadays all this dance is so in your face. I had to do this last night. I started unfollowing stuff because I’m always tired of it blowing up in my face.
As far as inspiration, I’ve been looking a lot towards vogue. I love the culture, I think obviously being a gay black man and vogue coming from the mostly black LGBT community, I just like the free form of it, the grace of it and the dramatics of it so much. I feel that a lot of dance stems from ballet and vogue. A lot of it stems from vogue and it can bring you a long way if you know that.
Otherwise, a lot of my inspiration comes from old artists. Old school Janet. Old school Britney. Again, old school Missy. Old school choreographers. I'm into the old school because back then you had to dance, even without that social media. It meant that if you danced, you wanted to dance. If you didn’t, you weren’t about that life.
I'm inspired the most through hard work and dedication, not through talk and not through technology. And I think the biggest, biggest inspiration – individuality. I think all my life I’ve had to be this black sheep. I think that’s what was hardest for me in LA was that people would be like – oh you're dope, but only certain people would use me because even if I was dope people wouldn’t know what to do with me. At that point, I kind of had to conform a little but I never was the kind of person to kiss someone’s a** or conform. I had a few hurdles there (laughs). Because I'd go to shows, and people would kiss up and I’m like – I don’t know you like that. We know each other, and we’re both human at the end of the day.
Also! My biggest, biggest, biggest inspiration – snakes. If you watch snakes first and the way they move, how they move their heads and how their bodies move after. Like it sounds weird but I’ll watch Animal Planet or Old Discovery videos and I'm like wow – how do they do that?
At the end of the day, Kris notes individuality - the most important thing is to do it for yourself and no one else. In the dance industry, sometimes it sucks because you may have to curb that individuality if you want to be about that kind of life: dancing for a certain artist, or going on tour. That's part of the process.
Kris: "If that’s what you want then go for it but I would say the minute you go against your morals and values - that's the worst feeling you can ever feel. So don’t change you who you are because you really really want this gig. Again – ultimately it’s up to you, but at least know that you’re the one who made the choice if that’s what you want.
And don’t sit on anything for too long. Sometimes your vision may not come out the exact way you want it too, but sometimes those last minute tweaks make it better. But if you wait for something too long you might miss your window. Just shut up, do it, and hope for the best." ⭐