In the thick of it
Recession be damned, the Dance Center thrives.
“I’ve always wanted Chicago to be a dance destination, the way it’s an architecture, food and theater destination,” says Bonnie Brooks, chair of the dance department at Columbia College. “It’s becoming that now.” Brooks recalls a 2005 dinner following an appearance by groundbreaking choreographer Merce Cunningham’s company at the invitation of Columbia’s Dance Center, the Art Deco block housing Brooks’s department and a 272-seat theater. (It celebrates a decade in the South Loop Saturday 25 with 13 hours of free programming called 1306—Ten Years Later.) Cunningham, who passed away at 90 in July 2009, leaned over to tell Brooks, “ ‘You know, you have a wonderful dance audience here in Chicago.’ He wasn’t talking about our sold-out house,” Brooks adds. “It was because he sensed an enthusiasm and a commitment that he didn’t encounter in lots of places.”
The Dance Center itself, what executive director Phil Reynolds calls a “two-headed beast,” has been a primary incubator of that enthusiasm. One noggin is its undergraduate program, which exploded from a larger-than-average count of 80 dance majors at its prior location in Uptown—the former movie theater Brooks worked in for one year, and Reynolds two—to almost 300 entering the 2010–11 school year. (With 70 staff and faculty members, it’s also one of the largest dance employers in the city.) Brooks notes a parallel uptick in Dance Center alumni moving on to graduate studies in field-leading programs at NYU, UCLA and Arizona State.
The beast’s other brain is an on-site performance season, which this year begins October 7–9 when audience members, actor-dancers and musicians share space onstage during Emily Johnson/Catalyst Dance’s The Thank-You Bar. Such cross-pollination of the public, students and local artists often happens when companies like Minneapolis’s Catalyst visit, through DanceMasters classes, workshops and kid-friendly FamilyDance matinees. “We’re not doing one-night stands,” says Reynolds, who frequently asks a company’s artistic director or choreographer to extend his or her visit to maximize time with students.
Associate professor, music director and former dancer Richard Woodbury, who joined Columbia’s faculty in 1977, notes that moving to 1306 South Michigan Avenue figured prominently in the expansion of the Dance Center’s impact. “Suddenly, we weren’t a satellite to the city or the college. And I’d like to think our contributions to the larger arts scene in Chicago became more essential as well.” They have, specifically via the theater’s focus on globally minded and cross-cultural performance work, such as a co-commission, with organizations in Berlin and Taipei, of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan’s Wild Cursive in 2005–6, and lengthy engagements of H.T. Chen, Margaret Jenkins, David Roussève and Urban Bush Women, to name a few.
Although the Dance Center’s ability to offer such residencies more frequently and fund new work has suffered from the recession, Reynolds confirms Brooks’s observation of the resilient growth of interest in dance here. “I feel fortunate, I suppose—or lucky or brilliant or something—that so many of our colleagues are really struggling right now with box office and their funding and, knock on wood, we’re hanging in there, after two years of this financial stuff.”
The mystery ingredient could well be a steadfast commitment to work that challenges its viewers. Brooks—who’s writing a history on the ’90s culture wars of which she found herself “on the front line” as then-president of Dance/USA, advocating for the National Endowment for the Arts—is quick to note, “We think the possibility of making people uncomfortable is okay. It might even be healthy sometimes! Part of what art does is reflect back on and critique society. You can’t do that if you’re just making nice all the time.”