Sink or swim appears to be the mantra of several Chicago dance organizations who are pressing ahead with planned expansions despite a global pandemic that continues to cripple the performing arts.
One of the earliest ways that dancers responded to COVID-19 was by learning to stream classes and rehearsals online. Lucky Plush partnered with the University of Chicago, essentially launching a digital dance studio. Common Conservatory and Natya Dance Theatre found they’ve been able to tap into new pools of dancers by expanding beyond their physical studio spaces. Months later, many dance instructors are finding ways to come back online with live classes, or offering a combination of live and livestreamed possibilities for dance training. Dovetail Studios, Ruth Page School of Dance and Hyde Park School of Dance are all managing in-person pre-professional instruction.
The financial situation is still dire. Dance studios are operating at a fraction of their normal capacity. Profit margins in the studio business are slim to begin with, and pro-level classes rely on clientele who are largely out of work and scraping by. Instructors and studios are offering free or very low-cost classes to pro dancers, who need class to maintain their instrument.
It’s an untenable situation. But dance presses on, squeezing lemonade from lemons and moving forward, no matter what.
Red Clay Dance Company and their affiliated Academy, a fixture of the Fuller Park neighborhood for the last five years, is moving 20 blocks south to Woodlawn. The customized new space boasts two state-of-the-art studios, fully equipped for live and digital classes, dressing facilities and administrative offices.
It is part of the massive expansion in the South Side performing arts scene, to which Deeply Rooted Dance Theater intends to add a brand-new center for African-American dance education in partnership with the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago, the Chicago Community Loan Fund and Studio One Dance Theater. Announced in 2018 as a pie-in-the-sky initiative, DRDT co-founder and creative director Kevin Iega Jeff aims make good on the promise, publicly affirming a capital campaign in an onstage announcement at their most recent benefit performance.
On the North Side, Joel Hall Dancers & Center have begun work on The Hall, a new spot in Albany Park that will house four studios for company rehearsals and educational programing. And Visceral Dance Center, having outgrown its Logan Square studios almost as soon as they opened in 2007, moves up the road to Avondale in 2021 with a renovated riverfront vista that triples their space.
Mandala South Asian Performing Arts also recently announced a planned expansion to the western suburbs. Early next year, the multi-disciplinary company which offers a variety of bharatanatyam classes in the Loop will launch a new program at the National Indo-American Museum in Lombard.
Still others are building new businesses from the ground up, seeking to salvage (or capitalize on) a few key losses from the past year.
When the Lou Conte Dance Studio closed, Ethan Kirschbaum conceived the brand-new Chicago Movement Collective, in residence at the American Rhythm Center, as a way to keep working and transform pro-level dance training. The Rooted Space similarly offers a variety of techniques for professional dancers in the North Center hidey hole previously known as Rast Ballet, in addition to a full list of children’s classes. Both locations (Rooted and the American Rhythm Center) have also filled a hole created when Outer Space, a bastion of affordable rehearsal space in Wicker Park, unceremoniously closed last winter.
One could argue that now’s not the time to take risks. Indeed, companies like Giordano Dance Chicago and Ensemble Espanol Spanish Dance Theater, once slated for huge growth, have necessarily downsized because of the pandemic.
I recently spoke on a panel with various arts leaders, moderated by Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones. “The world only spins forward,” he said, quoting Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.” Jones repeated the quote on Twitter Saturday, with side-by-side portraits of John Adams and Kamala Harris.
Yes, such bold moves from Chicago’s dance community could certainly be labeled risky—naïve, even. But I’d like to think these are calculated risks aimed at spinning the world forward, preserving and advancing Chicago’s national reputation as a hot spot for dance education and creating opportunities for all of us to keep moving. I certainly hope that’s the case.