Whawp. That was the sound of Delusions, a festival of experimental music at the Zhou B. Art Center, getting shut down two weeks ago. The closure, ordered by police, was as predictable as a waltz tempo, but somehow no one at Bridgeport's palace of the avant-garde saw it coming. Majel Connery—artistic director of Opera Cabal, the organization of composers, writers, musicians, singers, and actors producing the four-day festival—says her group didn't have a contract with the center. "If we did, I think we'd be suing them," she says.
Connery was deep into a performance of Ursularia, playing the ill-fated Saint Ursula in a new chamber opera written by Cabal members, when the ax fell. In the story, Ursula has been ordered by God to recruit 11,000 virgins for a religious pilgrimage but is fated to deliver them instead to an army of murderous Huns. As the saint and her Immortal Soul (sung impressively by Amanda DeBoer) were gasping their way through a final indignity, the police were at the door deciding that this performance would be the last. The Zhou B. center, which last July was notoriously shut down while the Poetry Foundation's Printers' Ball was in full swing, still didn't have the necessary city licenses.
"We were depressed for a full 12 hours," Connery says. The police arrived Friday, October 19, when the two biggest days of the fest were still to come. "We had people flying in from the east coast and the west coast for this, and we had already paid for their plane tickets. It seemed like we had to do something." Officially canceled, the festival was quietly moved the next day to the ballroom of a Hyde Park home, where it was performed for an audience of about 50. Connery launched Opera Cabal last year with a fellowship from the University of Chicago, where she's pursuing a PhD. Before the October gig the group had held three smaller events at the Zhou B. center, which provided the space free of charge. But she says it isn't likely to perform there again.
The Chicago Composers Forum, which has an office on the third floor of the center and had an event scheduled for the next day on the second floor, fared worse. Executive director Christopher Preissing says he was setting up on Friday afternoon when he happened to come downstairs and find three police officers and the manager of the Zhou B. Cafe discussing whether he would have to cancel. They'd already had a snag on ticket sales: Preissing says CCF had publicized admission of $30 before the center's manager told them, just days before the event, that they couldn't charge. Still, he didn't think there'd be a problem: after the Printers' Ball fiasco, he assumed management had taken care of the licenses.
Now the cops told him it was no go. Relocating the show overnight was impossible: it required a big setup, with an eight-channel sound system and a 65-foot-long canvas to be painted by the Zhou brothers while four groups of musicians from ICE, working with CCF composers, played a carefully devised "improvisational" score. On Saturday CCF canceled. "There were folks who had come in from out of town for us—most of the ICE members live in New York now—so it was a real bummer," Preissing says. But major sponsor Boeing has been supportive, and he's looking to reschedule in the spring, somewhere else.
Zhou B. manager Oscar Friedl says the days of giving free event space to groups like Opera Cabal are over. To meet the city's requirements even nonprofit renters will have to come up with hundreds of dollars to cover license fees and insurance. This, he says, is "squashing all the grassroots energy that we were able to generate" and is "bad policy." Friedl also says zoning in the area was changed from a more adaptable business zone to a planned manufacturing district even though the manufacturers are moving out, "just in time for us to be screwed." He says he just went through the same problem at another Bridgeport building where he books events, Iron Studios, where "they sent somebody a day before the event with a cease-and-desist order because not everything was in place."
That was the Chicago Artists' Coalition benefit and exhibition, which opened October 5. CAC executive director Olga Stefan says she went through the special-event licensing process unaware that Iron Studios had previously been cited for a sprinkler system that still hadn't been repaired, which slowed things down. She also says the city initially lost part of her paperwork. The Department of Business Affairs and Licensing says it didn't receive a completed application from her until after the cease-and-desist order had been issued. CAC got its permit at the last minute, and Stefan says in the end the city was helpful, but it was a hair-raising scramble that had her on the phone a half hour before the benefit trying to round up six exit guards. "Really, the buildings should be getting the licenses," she says. "It's $6,000 for a year, and they can figure it into the rental costs."
But Friedl says it's not that simple. To get a license that will allow just 30 special events annually, the Zhou B. center would have to make improvements he estimates would cost about $200,000, beginning with the electrical system. Although the center's having a "spectacular" impact on the area, he says, the Zhou brothers' current thinking is that "in the future we'll have no more public events, period." Friedl thinks that's a bad thing for the community, but his real concern isn't the public events, which he says cost the center money, but corporate events, which pay for the exhibition program. He claims there's confusion about what's a public event and what's private, and that "that's what needs to be clarified." He also says "we're being watched on all levels," when the city should be thinking, "How can we make this a process that fosters development rather than hampers?"
According to the city's DBA, the Zhou B. center was issued a cease-and-desist order during the Printers' Ball because it lacked a special-event license, a liquor license, and a retail food license, and it still hasn't obtained any of those. (The Zhou B. Cafe is a separate, licensed entity.) DBA spokesperson Efrat Stein cautions that "anytime you have more than 100 people gathering and are offering music or other entertainment, you ought to be checking about licenses." The city supports the arts, Stein says; this is a safety issue.
What She Did for Dance
As dance careers go, Mari Jo Urbe has had a good run: 18 years altogether, 15 of them with River North Chicago Dance Company, where she's the only remaining member of the original troupe. She'll be packing it in after the company's benefit concert at the Harris Theater November 7, though she'll continue as rehearsal director, a job she's held for five years. "Secretly, I always wanted to take my career to 40," Urbe says. "I love performing and I feel that my artistry is at its peak. But I'm 36, and it's been a lot of wear and tear." How much? "Torn ligaments, torn tendons, sprains, a broken foot, knee surgery, two bulging disks, and one that's herniated." She's ending it, she says, while she can still walk.v