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(Originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune, May 6, 2001)



Sherry Zunker glowed as she swept through the door of a Gold Coast coffee shop. The co-artistic director of River North Chicago Dance Company (RNCDC) had just taught a two-hour movement class and spent another hour improvising with the dancers. She was especially ecstatic about the improv segment, which turned into a candid discussion about the artists' current emotional states. They talked about the ups and downs of relationships, pet peeves and happy memories.

It's this sort of personalized interaction with the dancers that Zunker thrives on. Lately, though, her duties as an administrator have robbed her of these emotion-laden rap sessions crucial to developing her spirited jazz-based works linked to the human experience.

After RNCDC's spring concert at Centre East in Skokie, May 12 and 13, Zunker will step down as co-artistic director - a position she has held since 1990 -- to pursue freelance teaching and choreographing.

"So little of the job was creative anymore," said Zunker, 40, of her reason for leaving RNCDC. "It became more about maintaining, day-to-day, the quality of the company and less about choreographing. I like visualizing and creating dances."

But RNCDC's co-artistic director Frank Chaves (who will assume sole artistic leadership) is quick to note, "Sherry's not getting away that easily." Nor will Zunker totally disengage herself from this respected contemporary troupe capable of marrying commercial appeal with compelling artistry.

"Sherry will be choreographing a piece for us next season," announced Chaves. "Her varied works make up a large part of our repertoire, and we will continue to perform them. She set up a positive approach to working, and that energy will definitely stay with us."

For RNCDC's fall season, Zunker will join local choreographers Ginger Farley and Kevin Iega Jeff in creating a series of solos performed simultaneously to the Gipsy Kings' version of "My Way." She doesn't plan to leave Chicago anytime soon. But Zunker will no doubt chalk up some frequent-flier miles through Concentrix, a production company that develops cutting-edge shows for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. For the past eight years, she has added a jazzy-balletic sophistication to their musical revues and will continue to give their floating Broadway-style shows an avant-garde spin.

"My choreography really works in the commercial world," she said. "I think I know instinctively what strikes a chord with audiences, and all of my work is about affecting a human emotion. I'm part of a choreographic team at Royal Caribbean, and our shows are not cliched. They're very talent-driven and take the audience to many places emotionally while being very entertaining."

She injected a similar kind of layered artistry into RNCDC when she accepted the leadership post just one year after the company was founded by a group of jazz- and disco-oriented dancers.

"River North started out hot, steamy and sizzling," said Zunker with a laugh. "But, over the years, our work has become more textured.

"I had so much concert dance and so much commercial dance experience, but could never do both in one place. I was able to combine these styles at River North."

A self-taught choreographer, she honed her skills as a teacher at Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Center, Lou Conte Dance Studio and the Ruth Page Foundation School of Dance. Yet Zunker never set her sights on being a dancemaker. Her career evolved out of a lifelong passion for dance - beginning with a full plate of tap, ballet and jazz classes at the Jean Wolfmeyer School of Dance in her native Manitowoc, Wis.

She starred as the Sugar Plum Fairy in Manitowoc's annual "Nutcracker," and basically lived at the dance studio. Zunker attended the now-closed National Academy of Art in Champaign, Ill., and enjoyed an exhilarating performance career that included a solo role in Bob Fosse's "Dancin'" and a principal dancer position with Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago.

"By the age of 5," she recalled, "I was completely obsessed about becoming a dancer. As a child, I used to get very bored. I was only content when I was listening to music and watching 'The Lawrence Welk Show' - waiting anxiously for [dancers] Bobby and Sissy to perform. I was a huge daydreamer, too. I would sit by the stereo and picture myself dancing."

Music has always played a key role in her choreography. Centre East audiences will experience "Vent," Zunker's hard-hitting duet for two women coping with separate romantic break-ups set to the music of Natalie Cole and Reba McEntire; and "The Man That Got Away," an anguished and comical pas de deux featuring Judy Garland's gut-spilling version of the title ballad.

"My work is almost always motivated by the music," Zunker stated. "And it has to be music that engages the audience. That idea ties into my overall motivation for choreographing - evoking very deep and true emotions."

River North Chicago Dance Company performs May 12 and 13 at Centre East in the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie. Tickets: $35. Call 847-673-6300 or 312-902-1500. •
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