Constellation: A new venue for music and other performing arts

Constellation: A new venue for music and other performing arts

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Wrigleyville has dedicated itself to nurturing the pursuits and expressions of “‘bro culture” like no other neighborhood in Chicago.

Wandering along Clark Street between Belmont and Addison Avenues on a weekend (or during a Cubs home stand) is like entering their personal pleasure dome, a place where men sporting backwards baseball caps and pastel golf shirts stage elaborate performances: Alienated sports fan, existential beer chugger, street fighter.

So I’ve always found it pleasing that the neighborhood has proven a shelter for two very different communities: the practitioners of women’s health, and performing artists.

No more though. After 35 years sharing the second story of the Link’s-Hall Building at the corners of Sheffield, Clark and Newport, both the Women’s Health Center and performance venue Links Hall are relocating.

Though it has been raising money and looking for a new space for some time, Women’s Health Center hasn’t yet made an announcement about new digs. But Links Hall has not only landed, in many ways it has found a new lease on life.

Their new home is the former Viaduct Theatre at Belmont and Western, now known as Constellation.

There Links Hall, under the direction of Roell Schmidt, will be both the primary tenant and partner in a “collaborative arts venue” with jazz musician and music presenter Mike Reed.

In fact tonight Links will kick Constellation into existence with its show Fraction: Dance in Progress.

Fraction, in keeping with Link’s mission to present established and emerging performers, is kind of a dance “open house”. The program features a series of works-in-progress by an array of performers, including 7th and 8th grade Near North Montessori School students, a couple of flamenco artists, and Philip Elson, a member of local dance troupe The Seldoms. There’ll also be opportunity for audiences to talk with the artists and provide feedback on their work.

But Fraction also represents what’s exciting about Constellation overall.

Though many of the venue’s shows will reflect Reed’s experiences in the world of improvised music (he performs in a seemingly endless number of ensembles and leads two jazz groups of his own), this is also a space for all kinds of performers, including dancers, filmmakers, and pop musicians.

Variety has truly been the hallmark of Reed’s presenting style, whether at the Chicago Jazz Festival, the Pitchfork Music Festival or, for the past two years, the Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusement, a curious but satisfying mix of music performers, circus acts and stand-up comedians. That he’s hired Michael Slaboch, former talent buyer at The Hideout, to program Constellation, signals a continuing commitment to eclecticism.

Already there is an emphasis on collaboration across performing arts. This coming Sunday, Links Hall dancers will improvise alongside Dutch experimental musician Hans Bennink and other members of ICP (Instant Composers Pool). On April 18th CIMM (the Chicago International Music and Movies Festival) will host an evening with works from both musician Van Dyke Parks and his son filmmaker Richard Parks.

Constellation is also forging into less familiar musical territory with a weekly series showcasing Chicago’s burgeoning new or contemporary classical music scene.

Curated by Peter Margasak of The Chicago Reader (and a regular contributor to WBEZ’s Friday night music show Radio M), the series will focus mainly on local ensembles. Already in the works are performances from members of Eighth Blackbird, International Contemporary Ensemble, and Ensemble Dal Niente.

Though it’s possible to see contemporary classical music on a fairly regular basis in the city, until now, said Margasak, they “haven’t had a center of action.” He’s also hoping the series will provide them with some much-needed “infrastructure”.

“Normally these groups have to rent spaces and equipment to perform,” said Margasak. “This basically gets rid of a lot of their overhead. Constellation has a real piano, a real sound system, a screen if they want to do multimedia stuff.”

Long term, Margasak’s ambition is to increase the profile of Chicago’s new music performers and composers on their home turf. As with many local jazz artists, contemporary classical musicians have frequently found more acclaim the further they get from Chicago.

And though certain groups, like ICE, Fulcrum Point and Fifth House Ensemble have been music stalwarts in the city for some time now, performing in venues from the Adler Planetarium to small art galleries, Margasak thinks featuring them at Constellation, with its cross-section of performance genres and styles, will help “demystify” or make the music come across as “less hoity-toity”.

Chicago’s music venues have long learned to find space for other performing talents, from poets and writers to talk show hosts and spelling bee contestants. Still, Constellation seems like a different effort to present a whole array of cutting edge events, in a space and manner audiences will still find accessible.

You can judge for yourself when the venue opens its doors tonight. Meanwhile, Margasak will launch his new music series, known as “Frequency”, with a free open house on April 27th. He’s featuring groups that represent both the composed (Ensemble Dal Niente) and improvised (modular synth group The Green Pasture Happiness led by Brian Labycz) sides of the new music scene.

Constellation is located at 3111 N. Western Avenue.

Alison Cuddy is WBEZ’s Arts and Culture reporter. You can follow her on twitter @wbezacuddy, Instagram and Facebook.