During Friday night’s performance by River North Dance Chicago in the University at Buffalo’s Center for the Arts, Buffalo native and UB grad Jessica Wolfrum will step out onto the stage alone, the train of her blood-red dress trailing several feet behind her.
She’ll perform the new solo piece “Renatus” – Latin for “rebirth” – set to an aria from Puccini’s “Tosca” and devised by the Berlin-born choreographer Nejla Yatkin. The piece, which emerged from a rehearsal process that Wolfrum said resembled a therapy session more than typical workshops, touches on universal themes like womanhood and dealing with past baggage. But it also draws on Wolfrum’s history as a dancer who has pursued her career with uncommon drive from the time she was barely a toddler.
Wolfrum’s life in dance began at 3, when her parents enrolled her in a movement class. By age 5, she was already hard at work on her ballet, tap and jazz techniques alongside dancers twice her age. After that, it was off to David DeMarie Dance Studios in Clarence, the Royal Academy of Ballet in Amherst and the University at Buffalo.
Through a combination of hard work and sheer luck, Wolfrum arranged to audition for the Chicago-based River North company late in her senior year of college. River North hired her before she graduated, and she’s been happily dancing for the popular national touring company for the past 11 years.
A life spent in pursuit of anything other than dance was never an option, Wolfrum said in a phone interview from Chicago. A serious knee injury during her sophomore year in college only strengthened her determination to make a career out of dancing. “I said, ‘I have to dance professionally, I cannot have this taken away from me,’ ” she recalled.
At UB, Wolfrum took advantage of the school’s multidisciplinary dance program, honing her technique in ballet, jazz, tap and contemporary dance. That was perfect for River North, a company known for an eclectic style that mixes traditional ballet with an ever-evolving range of contemporary styles.
“I feel like River North was a perfect fit with how I’ve been trained since I was a little girl. I haven’t been just trained in ballet, just trained in modern or just trained in tap or jazz. I studied and really tried to be an eclectic, varied dancer,” she said. She added that River North’s aesthetic, because it mixes so many influences and is constantly shifting, is difficult to pin down.
“There is a definite emotion that I think sets River North apart from a lot of companies,” she said. “We cater to emotions and feelings and we really break down that fourth wall. So we want the audience to feel like they are a member of that stage with us, rather than you just watching a TV show.”
While in town, Wolfrum and the other dancers in River North have been teaching workshops in local schools including UB. The company also performed, as part of the CFA’s award-winning Arts in Healthcare program, in Roswell Park Cancer Institute’s atrium and at Women & Children’s Hospital.
For Wolfrum, who dances alongside fellow UB grad Melanie Manale-Hortin in the company, the opportunity to perform in her hometown is a rare thrill. The fact that she’s performing a new solo piece only adds to her excitement.
“After performances, sometimes we interact with the audience, and it’s really truly touching and humbling that I can allow people to feel a certain way.”
What: River North Dance Chicago
When: 8 p.m. Friday (pre-show talk at 7:15 p.m.)
Where: University at Buffalo Center for Arts
Tickets: $29.50 general, $13.50 students and children