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Boulevard Dreamers on WBEZ: A weird, wonderful variety show pays tribute to Chicago culture

You’ll find a little bit of everything in Water Music on the Beach: Boulevard Dreamers, where every performer gets equal pay and stage time.

By Isabella DeLeo, June 23, 2022

The beachfront variety show Water Music on the Beach: Boulevard Dreamers features an eclectic mix of performers who all take photographs in front of the same backdrop. Clockwise from top left: Composer Corey Douglas Smith; hip-hop artist Shane Calvin of Circles and Ciphers; the band Lifeguard; songwriter Marko Stats; performers Kofi the Kyd, Jess Smoot, Akeem Soyan and Trellyo; and Senn High School students Alex and Ricky Munguia-Mueller. Kirsten Leenaars and Lise Baggesen / Courtesy of 6018 North

On a blisteringly hot June morning inside the Edgewater arts nonprofit 6018North, the Chicago artist and dancer Hannah Santistevan grabbed a pink and red paint-splattered turntable record and began to gracefully move.

Posing for the camera, Santistevan hoisted the record high above her head and positioned it in such a way that it almost blended in with the backdrop: a circle of 14 other vibrantly paint-covered albums. The records evoke a sense of color and play, but also serve as an ever-expanding archive of a decade-long art project that comes to a head later this month with a beachfront concert and variety performance.

Rich Blackson, Kofi the Kyd, Trellyo, Marko Stats, Boulevard Dreamers, 2022. Photo credit: Ji Yang.

The project is called Boulevard Dreamers, and it started in 2013 with artists and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago professors Kirsten Leenaars and Lise Haller Baggesen. But this year – perhaps the project’s final installation – it has grown in scope, with the artists teaming up with community-minded art curator Tricia Van Eck for a one-night party-meets-concert on June 25 that aims to knock down “the barriers of cultural segregation in Chicago,” in Baggesen’s words.

The performance menu spans post-punk and rap music, spoken word poetry, magic, theater, a live zine reading and contemporary dance. The goal: to find different performance communities that wouldn’t normally intersect, said Baggesen, and – in a move that is antithetical to the usual headliner treatment – showcase them equally.

Leenaars and Baggesen have structured the event, and the pay rate for their talent, so that all performers have an equal performance time, whether they’re a seasoned artist or novice. “Everybody is paid a flat rate,” Baggesen said. “We’re trying to make the stage a big equalizer, where everybody gets this proverbial 15 minutes of fame. And to bring out people from these different bubbles.”

Boulevard Dreamers at The Franklin, Chicago, 2013.

On the day of Santistevan’s photoshoot, Leenaars was behind the camera and Baggesen controlled the lighting. They mostly let Santistevan do her thing as she improvisationally danced, often shifting her balance between feet and stretching her arms out wide, emphasizing the record in her arms.

Leenaars and Baggesen have been organizing photoshoot portraits of all Boulevard Dreamers artist since 2013. Every performer since then has been snapped in front of the same backdrop: the circle of colorful records, simple yet dynamic, allowing the talent to make it their own.

The photoshoot is a simple, basic setup, but everybody performs as themselves,” said Baggeson, adding, “People always turn it up.”

The photos serve as promotional material for the event. But, in Leenaars and Baggesen’s minds, the images offer greater meaning: an installation, performance and archival project all at once. Attendees at the 2022 event will get to see the portraits, which will be projected from a room in the first-floor of the 6018North building starting at 3 p.m. before taking a walk over to Lane Beach for the full show.

Sitting on the porch of 6018North, enjoying a slight breeze, Leenaars flipped through her portfolio website, showing portraits of previous performers such as ChickenFat Klezmer Orchestra, Summer Tribble, Reborn, and Jessica Campbell, with each image illustrating a distinct sense of personality and interpretation.

Leenaars and Baggesen have previously hosted Boulevard Dreamers at various locations throughout Chicago, including the Museum of Contemporary Art, where they constructed a stage out of a cardboard box, and The Poetry Foundation, where they made a tongue-and-cheek modular stage and then destroyed it.

This year they decided to again team up with Van Eck, who had reached out to them about creating a special project that would combine Boulevard Dreamers with Water Music on the Beach, a concert she curates on the shores of Lake Michigan. For Van Eck, who built a gallery in an Edgewater Victorian and is interested in the relationship between art and community, the beach functions as a community builder.

“You’ll see there’s like people sunbathing that had no interest or idea in hearing music, but then they come over. We expose people as you walk by, you see art,” Van Eck said.

Leenaars and Baggesen emphasize community in their Boulevard Dreamers project, so that made the collaboration a natural fit. Leenaars has been working with the Rogers Park-based nonprofit Circles & Ciphers, a restorative justice organization with a focus on hip-hop – and Uptown, all “neighborhoods that share the same beach,” Van Eck says. Shane Calvin from the group will perform June 25.

The audience can expect rows of seating in the sand and six records flanking the stage “like big lollipops,” Baggesen said. “What we’re trying to do with a stage design this time is really to frame the lake as the natural backdrop and unifier for the whole city of Chicago.”

The co-directors give the performers a lot of creative freedom for their performances. ​​”We’re also hoping for that element of surprise, where we don’t even really know what’s gonna happen, but just for it to be great,” Baggesen said. The around 30 featured artists include Fred Sasaki & family, Michael Zerang with Janet Bean and Tyler Damon, Kofi the Kid, LOUD BODIES Dance, Santistevan and others.

In the early days of Boulevard Dreamers, when it was a smaller-scale project, Leenaars and Baggesen paid the performers with their portraits. But as of 2022, they pay $100 to each participant, assisted with a grant from the Illinois Arts Council.

Even though it’s on a bigger scale, this year may be the last installation of Boulevard Dreamers, said Leenaars and Baggesen, given the logistical and administrative challenges of putting on the event. “We’re hoping that we can bring that magic,” Baggesen said of the pair’s potential project swansong.

After that, in the true style of experimentation, it’s anyone’s guess.

If you go: Water Music on the Beach: Boulevard Dreamers will join together Leenaars and Baggesen’s project Boulevard Dreamers with the founder of 6018North Tricia Van Eck’s project Water Music on the Beach, on Saturday, June 25. The projections begin at 3 p.m. at 6018North (6018 N. Kenmore Ave.) before attendees are invited to walk to Lane Beach (5915 N. Sheridan Rd.) for the performance, less than one quarter mile away. The event is free. For more great free summer cultural finds, check out our summer guide.

Isabella DeLeo is a freelance writer based in Chicago.


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