Take My Dance Festival, Please; Miscellany | On Culture | Chicago Reader

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Take My Dance Festival, Please; Miscellany

Columbia College is offering a dowry to the institution that gives DanceAfrica Chicago a new home.

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For the first time since it burst onto the scene 16 years ago, there will be no DanceAfrica Chicago this fall. Columbia College, which has produced the festival since the beginning, is looking to leave it on the doorstep of another institution in less-than-healthy condition. The school has, however, promised an undisclosed amount of financial support for the next three years if an appropriate new home can be found. Michael Warr, whose post as executive director was dissolved in August, has been trying to arrange an adoption, and last week a transition committee sent a recommendation to president Warrick Carter. The final decision was still pending at press time, but word is the festival will find refuge at the DuSable Museum.

DanceAfrica Chicago consists of a weeklong series of small community performances and a weekend show in a major downtown venue, most recently the Chicago Theatre. Earlier this summer Columbia issued a request for proposals from a narrow list of organizations that might be interested in taking it over, including the DuSable, the Department of Cultural Affairs, and some Afrocentric dance companies. According to a backgrounder issued by the school, DanceAfrica has been losing money as costs "have exceeded sponsorship and ticket-sales revenue." David Flatley, director of Columbia's Center for Community Arts Partnerships, which oversees the festival, says part of the problem is that his department isn't a producing entity--it facilitates arts education in schools--and was strained by the demands of marketing the festival. DanceAfrica "doesn't really belong in this office," he says, and "there didn't seem to be an obvious place [at the college] where it would make sense, given how it had developed and grown." That's the same conclusion a consultant hired by the college came to last winter, he says.

DanceAfrica was founded by choreographer and teacher Charles "Baba Chuck" Davis, who still serves as its artistic director and guiding spirit. It originated at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where it continues to thrive (as does a branch in Washington, D.C.). In 1991 Peter Tumbelston, who'd spent a couple years as director of MoMing Dance & Arts Center and had seen DanceAfrica in New York, proposed a Chicago production to Woodie White, executive director at the Dance Center of Columbia College. Julie Simpson, who was also at the Dance Center, says Tumbelston already had funding for the project, and she and White helped him bring it to fruition. DanceAfrica turned out to be Tumbelston's last hurrah: he died of AIDS in January 1992. "He sat at the box office with us and sold tickets and then went home and never got out of bed again," Simpson says.

But the festival was a success. Davis was already traveling to Africa and other parts of the world to find acts for the New York show, so scouting costs for the Chicago lineup were minimal. Originally the event also included an extensive marketplace where African art and artifacts were sold before and after the show. But what made it exceptional, Simpson says, was the audience experience. The opening-night performance would begin with a pouring of libation and a blessing from a "council of elders" (drawn from the local community), and by the end of the show, she says, there would be an "unequaled feeling of inclusion," 4,000 diverse strangers celebrating Davis's mantra of "peace, love, and respect for all."

In the early years there were also bountiful sponsorships and sold-out performances. This was almost totally due, Simpson says, to the influence of one "old white guy": Sid Ordower, a player in Harold Washington's administration who had connections to the labor movement. Ordower also produced and hosted Jubilee Showcase, a local gospel-music TV program that aired on Sunday mornings, and he was connected to the city's black churches. He organized DanceAfrica breakfasts that Simpson describes as a "cross between a black Baptist service and a Jewish fund-raiser. People came in the beginning because of allegiance to Sid. Heavyweights in the community: religious, cultural, political leaders. We had these rooms full of illustrious folk and we'd serve breakfast and they'd pledge to take large blocks of tickets--50 to 500, at deep discounts. We'd let them walk out with those tickets and they'd sell them to their entire church or their entire community center. They could sell them at full price; we'd invite them to use it as a fund-raiser."

In the beginning it was possible to offer discounts of 50 percent and more, Simpson says, because DanceAfrica was presented at the Medinah Temple, a 4,000-seat nonunion house where costs were low. The festival also had an "enormous amount" of corporate in-kind donations. "All of our airfare was donated, all of our hotel rooms were free, all of our media advertising was in-kind trades," she says. Later, when Medinah was sold and redeveloped, the show moved to the Auditorium Theatre, then to the Chicago. Both gave generous breaks at first, then, as their own management changed, less so. By the late 90s Ordower was ill--he died in 2002--and the breakfasts flagged. Attempts to market DanceAfrica to the general public proved tricky and expensive, and when the economy worsened, corporate sponsors turned elusive. Meanwhile Simpson moved from the Dance Center to the Center for Community Arts Partnerships in 1998, taking the festival and its $1 million budget (half in in-kind donations) with her. She continued to function as producer, but when she quit Columbia altogether in 2004 DanceAfrica was stranded, a stepchild that turned out to be a money loser. Given the "substantial" losses of the last few years, Simpson says it makes sense to step back and rethink.

"It's terrible," White says of the current situation. "I have great affection for Columbia, and I'm really sorry that they don't seem to have the wherewithal to make this happen." Davis says he's grateful that Columbia "didn't just toss it aside," and expects resolution within a month. He says DanceAfrica Chicago will return "bigger than ever."

Miscellany

Illinois Arts Alliance executive director Alene Valkanas has announced her retirement after 20 years, effective next spring. . . . Loyola University Gallery, which opened last year with an exhibit of photographs of artworks, has a new curator, medieval art expert Jonathan Canning.

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