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Dance Notes: Chicago City Ballet struggles for its life

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A professional resident ballet company has been a sometime thing in Chicago; the seven-year-old Chicago City Ballet is apparently the latest victim of internal politics and disappearing finances. When founder Maria Tallchief's co-artistic director, Paul Mejia, was ousted in favor of New York City Ballet principal dancer Daniel Duell, and Tallchief's own official status within the company was downgraded to "artistic adviser," she quit. Then Tallchief's husband, construction magnate Henry Paschen, withdrew his financial support. Since he had been underwriting a hefty percentage of the company's expenses since its founding, that hurt.

The company lost its Paschen-owned building, and finances dried up as well. The dancers were officially laid off, with a severance package, on November 17. But instead of quietly folding and trickling off to other jobs, Chicago City Ballet dancers and staff are proclaiming they're not dead yet. They're holding a spur-of-the-moment benefit this Sunday, November 29, to prove their intent to hold on.

"It's a morale raiser as much as a fund-raiser," says dancer and benefit co-organizer Patti Eylar, a member of the company since it was founded in 1980. "We want to gather support for the company within the community. We want to continue working here."

According to sources within the company, the group wasn't going anywhere artistically under Mejia and Tallchief, and they had little recognition within Chicago. Mejia insisted on performing his own choreography exclusively, and there were "personal problems" with his style. Eylar, who served on the search committee for the new director, isn't sure why Maria Tallchief stamped off in such a snit when her title was changed. "She took offense, which wasn't intended. After all, 'artistic adviser' was [New York City Ballet honcho George] Balanchine's title." She also finds it odd that so much of their other funding disappeared when Paschen's did. "But the dancers are totally committed to Dan Duell, and they're very excited about the future," says acting executive director Sarah Staples. "They're determined not to let this company slip away."

Despite the short notice and the holiday weekend, Eylar and her colleagues have managed to recruit other local performers: in a show of artistic solidarity, pianist Allan Dameron, the Chicago Repertory Dance Ensemble, and members of the Lyric Opera Chorus are all planning to offer selections. Other groups and soloists are still to be announced. All but the injured members of the 23-dancer Chicago City Ballet company (there are always injured ballet dancers) will perform pieces from current repertoire, which includes Quasars, Ave Maria, Poetic Waltzes, and River Suite. And Duell is now preparing a piece, to music by Francis Poulenc, to be debuted at the benefit.

Duell is excited about what he might be able to accomplish if the funding can be found. Says Duell, who cut his own dancing career short by several years in order to seize this opportunity to lead, "I would like to have a subscription season on a regular basis in a theater that meets our needs. I want absolutely first-rate dancing--that's a must. We'll develop a varied repertoire with a number of carefully selected choreographers--the Balanchine repertoire, my own repertoire, and that of others. And I want to engage other Chicago arts resources; I've already made contact with various musical organizations, and some of them are very interested. We'll do special projects. educational projects, and reach out to all parts of the city. I would love to see us turn into the equivalent of New York City Ballet."

Whether he and his dancers can pull off this ambitious goal remains to be seen, and money will count as much as artistic decisions. "Dance for Tomorrow," as the benefit is officially called, will take place this Sunday, with performances at 3 and 7 PM (there will be a reception between the two) in the Ruth Page Auditorium, 1016 N. Dearborn, where the dancers have been working since being ousted from their old building. For tickets, call 248-7759 or 944-2082; the suggested donation is $10.

"But the support is even more important than the money," says Eylar. Adds Dan Duell, "If we can stick it out, a lot of the best kinds of things can happen here."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alex Galindo.

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