It was painting and poetry, not dance, that first captured the imagination of Christina Ernst as a child growing up in Switzerland. The daughter of a renowned opera singer, Ernst was immersed in the arts from a very young age but did not consider pursuing dance until she was already close to adulthood. The shift in focus was a surprise even to her.
“Usually in ballet people start when they are 3 or 4,” said Ernst. “I started dancing when I was 17. Very, very late. And then I progressed very quickly. I think it was meant to be.”
During the globe-spanning decades that followed, Ernst studied ballet and modern dance, honing her skills in performing, teaching, choreographing and directing. She joined Evanston Dance Ensemble (EDE) in 2000 and now serves as the artistic director of the pre-professional dance company in residence at Dance Center Evanston.
Her craft will be on display in the new production “Silver Lining,” a celebration of EDE’s 25-year anniversary, running March 17-19 at the Josephine Louis Theater on the Northwestern University campus.
Ernst, one of 10 choreographers featured in the show, may have been a late bloomer in the dance world, but she proved to be an innovator, employing a unique choreographic style that turned the traditional marriage of music and movement upside down. Then and now, she prefers to choreograph in silence and let composers create the score to fit the dance.
“If I have the ideas and I have no music or score or counts or phrases, then I have no restriction. I can do whatever I want,” said Ernst. “It’s sort of like having a piece of paper with lines. If I want to make a painting, then those lines are in my way. I want the empty piece of paper.”
Using her blank-page technique, Ernst created “Unbreakable” in a silent room in 1987. It is the opening piece for the anniversary show, a sensory treat featuring eight dancers leaping across the stage with real glass objects, while the music echoes with sounds of vibrating glass.
“It’s a celebration of taking risk,” she said.
Including “Unbreakable,” the “Silver Lining” showcase comprises 12 dances, each chosen by Ernst, who reviewed 180 different recordings before making her final selections. The resulting mix offers “lots of different flavors,” Ernst said.
Audiences will experience creations by EDE’s venerable founder, Bea Rashid, as well as rising national dance star and alum Keerati Jinakunwiphat. Her piece “Come Together,” set to the classic Beatles song, is the final performance of the show. Dancers are dressed in colorful pedestrian clothing and the choreography has a loose, easy style, said Ernst. “It just feels good. It really and truly is about coming together.”
Ernst marvels at the talent that has sprung from EDE and the changes she has witnessed during her years as a dance professional. The merging of dance styles has created a beautiful blend, she said, and the dancers themselves also have evolved in a positive way.
“I think dancers today display tremendous athleticism. In my day, we didn’t go so athletic.”
One thing that remains unchanged, Ernst noted, is the work ethic necessary to excel in dance. Dancers need to show up to practice and rehearsals and commit to the process, sometimes working through injuries. They need to give their all as team players.
“That’s the big part of it,” she said. “For me, the performance is really just the icing on the cake.”
Tickets for “Silver Lining” are $15 for students and $25 for adults. They can be purchased at tinyurl.com/silverede or by calling the Northwestern University box office at (847) 491-7282.