Dueling Tappers/Gambling on Better Ratings | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

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Dueling Tappers/Gambling on Better Ratings

Local tap dancer Lane Alexander is not exactly jumping for joy over the Chicago on Tap festival. Most of the featured artists are from New York.


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Dueling Tappers

Two tap-dancing festivals are scheduled in town this month and a potential law suit is on tap as well. The first tap festival, Human Rhythm Project, which local tap artist Lane Alexander is producing, spotlights Chicago tappers. Alexander organized it in retaliation against the second, Chicago on Tap, which is being presented by the Dance Center of Columbia College and the Old Town School of Folk Music and almost wholly comprises tap dancers who do not live or work in the Windy City.

Alexander has also retained legal counsel and notified Columbia College president John Duff that he is seeking $50,000 in damages for an alleged breach of a contract by the Dance Center to feature Alexander and his tap company Alexander, Michaels/Future Movement (AM/FM) in the week-long Chicago on Tap, which is being principally sponsored by the Sara Lee Foundation. Chicago on Tap includes public performances July 22 through 24 at the 1,500-seat Skyline Stage on Navy Pier by 12 prominent tap artists, as well as tap jams, master classes, and youth workshops.

What bothers Alexander is that almost no Chicago tappers--not even himself--are included on the bill. "Almost all the money going into this festival is going back to New York and it's making those of us in the Chicago tap community look really bad," he says. With the exception of Sarah Petronio, who is a tap instructor at the Dance Center and also the Chicago on Tap curator, all the other featured artists in the celebration are based in other cities. These include: Savion Glover, a young tap dancer who starred in the Broadway productions of The Tap Dance Kid and Jelly's Last Jam; Jimmy Slyde, considered by some to be the greatest living jazz tap artist and a Tony Award-nominee for his role in the Broadway production of Black and Blue; Ted Levy, a Tony Award nominee for his choreography of the Broadway production of Jelly's Last Jam; and Van Porter, a featured dancer in Black and Blue who appeared in the movie Tap. Sarah Petronio's daughter Leela also is listed as a featured artist. Alexander maintains that local tappers were pushed aside to spotlight more salable talent from other parts of the country.

The producers concede one of their principal concerns in putting together the festival was generating ticket revenue. Explains Old Town School executive director Jim Hirsch: "We needed to bring in stuff that will make people want to buy tickets." In this instance that apparently came to mean out-of-town talent. But according to everyone interviewed for this article, in the early planning stages there was considerably more talk about Chicago tap talent playing a significant role in the festival.

Alexander says that as far back as 1989 he wrote to Dance Center artistic director Shirley Mordine about the idea of some sort of Chicago tap festival. Alexander had attended such events in other cities and believed Chicago should host a festival to give local tap a boost. Woodie White, then executive director of the Dance Center, says a number of people at the Dance Center were discussing the same idea at the time Alexander was pitching the idea to Mordine. Apparently the Dance Center decided in early 1992 the tap festival was a go. White then met with Alexander and his dance partner Kelly Michaels and asked them to participate in the festival. The day after the meeting Alexander sent White a letter reiterating his interest in participating. White subsequently sent Alexander a letter indicating the Dance Center would include him and his company in the planned festival.

But an early brochure for the tap festival appeared in the fall of 1993 with no mention of Alexander or his company. Alexander says he called Julie Simpson, who had been named executive director of the Dance Center after White moved over to the college's development office. According to Alexander, Simpson said that Petronio respected his work but didn't want to present him at the festival. Alexander then fired off a letter to Old Town's Hirsch in which he asked Hirsch to use whatever influence he might have to ensure more participation by Chicago artists.

So in November of last year Hirsch convened a meeting that included Alexander, Petronio, and the festival producers. Alexander was given the option of appearing in a performance of local tap talent in the Dance Center's small theater on Sheridan Road rather than at the much larger Skyline Stage, where the featured artists were scheduled to perform. Alexander was informed that for such an appearance he and his company could expect a fee of around $300 instead of the $3,500 to $5,000 for performances and master classes that Woodie White had mentioned at the meeting held in 1992.

Alexander sensed the producers were trying to shove the Chicago talent to the sidelines, but he asked the producers to put the offer in writing anyway. Simpson says she never sent Alexander anything in writing because he had indicated that he would only consider an offer to appear in the Skyline Stage performances, and by that point that was not a viable option.

So Chicago on Tap will have no performance spotlighting Chicago tap talent except for Petronio. Alexander is going ahead with his legal action and mounting a last-minute version of a festival he has produced annually for the last three years called the Human Rhythm Project. It runs July 11 through 16 and will include master classes at the Chicago Studio for Dance and Musical Theater and two tap performances on July 15 and 16 at the Harold Washington Library. Needless to say, Alexander's festival prominently features Chicago talent, including his company, Especially Tap Company, Steppin' Out, Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, and Idella Reed, as well as several guest artists.

Gambling on Better Ratings

If you weren't a regular viewer of the Illinois lottery's discontinued television game show $100,000 Fortune Hunt on WBBM, there's a good reason, according to lottery director Desiree Glapion Rodgers. "It was not friendly to the person watching at home because there was no play-along value for the home viewer." To try to correct the problem, Rodgers contacted Mark Goodson Productions, a New York and Hollywood-based production company that has created a slew of game shows through the years, including Family Feud, What's My Line, and To Tell the Truth. Now comes Illinois Instant Riches, which offers viewers four game segments to follow from home. MGP president Jonathan Goodson insists it's the best new game show to come along in 20 years. Viewers can decide for themselves, when the 30-minute show begins airing Saturday at 6:30 PM on WGN.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.

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