Around 10 p.m. on a recent night in June, Wills Glasspiegel went to the Merchandise Mart to test run Billiken, a new eight-minute art film he co-directed with Shkunna Stewart, with animation by Brandon K. Calhoun. But instead of preparing the film for a screening inside a theater, he was getting ready for something a bit larger: The movie will be projected onto the mammoth 340,000-square-foot facade of the Merchandise Mart.
Glasspiegel wasn’t sure if the film was even finished yet — he had been editing around the clock for many weeks to get it completed for a deadline that had been moved up from the fall to the summer on short notice. Selected as the centerpiece of Art on theMART’s summer programming, Billiken will be projected onto the Merchandise Mart every night through Sept. 7; it opens Thursday, June 30, at a splashy event the filmmakers hope will attract a big crowd. Young dancers featured in the movie — from teams like The Jesse White Tumblers, Dance Force, Geek Squad and Bringing Out Talent Dance Co. — will be there.
“Footwork is this grounded dance that’s focused on feet. But yet, there’s also a metaphor of flight, of taking off,” Glasspiegel said of a Chicago-born dance style that features prominently in the movie. “The poetics of that have been really inspiring to me as an artist,” adding that the projection onto the building makes the film “look like the children and the performers are really on the horizon of the city.”The architectural features of the historic art deco building, marked by clean geometric lines, adds another dimension to the film’s theme of flight. In Billiken, young dancers appear to glide through blue skies. Colorful rotoscope animation accentuates their movements as the sounds of the Rich Township Marching Machine band are sampled in a soundtrack made by RP Boo, the legendary creator of the footwork music genre. It’s an art film that gives viewers the impression that they’re flying too, as screens and geometric shapes slide on and off the screen with joyful ease.
Calhoun said when audiences watch the short film, he hopes “nothing else in the world even exists. Just like, ‘We here. This is amazing. These kids are dancing. This is the parade. This is our city. We feel proud that this is our city.’ ”
Billiken honors the youth dancers of the Bud Billiken Parade, the largest and longest-running African American parade in the United States. Started in 1929, the parade, which goes down King Drive in Bronzeville and heralds the start of the back-to-school season, gets its name from the fictional character Bud Billiken, created by Robert S. Abbott, the founder of the Chicago Defender. The Bud Billiken character was portrayed as a guardian angel for children and appeared in the pages of the Chicago Defender’s children’s section, Defender Junior, as a drawing by Willard Motley.
Despite the scale and longevity of the Bud Billiken Parade, which happens this year on Aug. 13, Calhoun said many people outside of Chicago might not have heard of it. “People don’t think this type of stuff exists in Chicago because of the national news Chicago gets about the violence, not about the celebration, not about the history of our city on the South Side,” he said.Although Glasspiegel, Stewart and Calhoun began working on Billiken just around one year ago, the idea for it emerged from the three filmmakers’ other creative collaborations centered on Chicago’s rich dance and music history, particularly African American youth dance teams. Glasspiegel and Calhoun co-directed the film Footnotes, which played at Art on theMART during summer 2021, focusing on the story of footwork in Chicago. Stewart, who is a fourth-generation youth dance group leader at the Bud Billiken Parade, manages the Bringing Out Talent Dance Co., where she has taught kids as young as 5 years old.
At that age, “they’re not perfect dancers but you can see them grow,” Stewart said, who has for several years partnered with the Chicago nonprofit Open the Circle, where Glasspiegel is the co-executive director. Stewart said that dance “gives the kids something to look forward to, especially during the downtime with no school, when they’re out for the summer. And we do have a goal of protecting the kids.” Between the two organizations, Glasspiegel and Stewart have collaborated for several years to host dance events and performances. Calhoun is a co-founder of The Era Footwork Crew, which promotes footwork and leads discussions about racism, inequity and supporting women in footwork.
Billiken ties together a lot of the performance and community work that Calhoun, Glasspiegel and Stewart have engaged in. The Bud Billiken Parade has been a central feature for a majority of the local dance groups the filmmakers have collaborated with. Plus, the filmmakers’ personal ties to the parade and the troupes involved extend even further: Calhoun and Stewart have long participated in the parade themselves.
The upcoming film won’t mark the end of the filmmakers’ collaboration. Calhoun and Glasspiegel are currently co-directing a documentary about footwork called Body of the City, which has received grants from the MacArthur Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Glasspiegel expects the location will add a meaningful layer to the experience of watching the movie, particularly for many of the young dancers who appear in the film. “These are kids that are sometimes coming from environments where they don’t get invited to the downtown space, they don’t get invited to perform on our city’s most-seen stages,” he said. “And so this is a way to change that. And for those who are often most encumbered by inequality in the city, to try to take away some of those borders and boundaries and open up the playing field, for everyone’s benefit, and everyone’s joy.”Billiken features archival footage filmed at the Bud Billiken Parade over the years, in addition to studio shoots with the around one dozen local youth dance groups filmed throughout April and May 2022. Stewart said that setting up these scenes was her favorite part of making Billiken. “Seeing the kids doing a lot of costume changes, they were using props,” she said. “Some of the kids have never done a photoshoot, it was just the excitement of it, just new things being done with the youth in the community.”
And community is what the film is really about. “Being able to bring not only people from our community together, but others that are in the downtown area, curious about the film,” Calhoun said. “Conversation has been a spark. It’s just like, it’s just a natural community builder, a good film.”
On the night of the Glasspiegel’s test screening at the Mart, a chance encounter signaled to the director that the movie was, in fact, finished. “There happened to be some kids out there with their mom, and they were dancing at the end of the projection, kind of a continuation of it,” he said. “That’s when I knew it was done. It was making people dance. It’s doing a good thing for the city.”
If you go: Billiken debuts Thursday, June 30, projected on the river-facing facade of the Merchandise Mart; if you want to sit, bring your own chair. At the premiere, RP Boo will spin a set starting at 8 p.m.; Billiken screens at 9 p.m. The film will be shown seven nights a week at 9 p.m. through Sept. 7.