Ballet Chicago: How to Lose Friends and Discourage Funders

Last Sunday’s Tribune arts section featured yet another rah-rah update on Ballet Chicago. Entertainment writer Sid Smith dutifully noted that the company will premiere four new works at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts in July and predicted that “there could very well be a new note of confidence and self-assurance onstage.” Smith’s article also offered Ballet Chicago’s artistic director, Daniel Duell, a chance to lament the abrupt cancellation of the company’s spring season at the Civic Opera House, which Duell attributed to “the reality of our economic climate.”

What Smith glossed over is the irksome fact that Ballet Chicago has performed as much at Jacob’s Pillow as it has in its hometown, which is funding a large part of the company’s expensive operation. Ballet Chicago’s money problems may be linked to economic conditions, as Duell said, but then again it may be that local funders aren’t ready to fork more money over to an organization that has already consumed so much while maintaining such a low local performance profile. Also missing in Smith’s piece was any sense of the company’s financial status or whether it has any responsible plan for growth, details that managing director Randall Green has been reluctant to discuss in the past. (He couldn’t be reached for comment.)

Meanwhile, sources say that Ballet Chicago has done a first-rate job of alienating its former allies at the Ruth Page Foundation School of Dance by seeking to take over the lucrative annual Christmas presentation of The Nutcracker at the Arie Crown Theatre, which the Ruth Page organization has produced for Tribune Charities for 24 years. A Tribune Charities source confirmed the matter had been discussed and said that Ballet Chicago executives had been informed in no uncertain terms that they would not be getting the production. But there is a chance Chicago will see more of Ballet Chicago: Columbia College Dance Center managing director Woodie White says a verbal agreement has been reached for a two-week early fall engagement in the center’s 250-seat theater, though no contract has been signed.

Remains in Flux

The enterprising Remains Theatre is undergoing considerable internal change. Last week director Larry Sloan announced he was taking on a two-day-a-week job as director of A Season of Concern, a group created by the theater community to raise funds for direct care of AIDS patients. He’s also the new fund-raising coordinator for the Actor’s Fund, which makes emergency grants to members of the entertainment industry. Sloan will maintain his title at Remains but cut his schedule back to three days a week; whether the change portends a sharply diminished role for him remains to be seen. The theater company is in the final stages of interviewing candidates for the post of producing director, with an announcement expected on or around July 1. The new staffer will take over many of Sloan’s administrative chores.

Meanwhile, Jennifer Boznos is also leaving the organization, to open a shop catering to the needs of show-dog owners. Boznos joined the company in 1986 with the title of producing director, but lately has been functioning primarily as press representative. Both Sloan and Boznos worked at the Goodman Theatre under former artistic director Greg Mosher before moving over to Remains.

Both changes come at the end of an eye-opening season during which Remains tested a daring $10 ticket policy. The season’s first two productions were short-lived, but the crowds for the finale, a revival of David Mamet’s American Buffalo, have kept it running since February. Despite its appeal, the Mamet work is not the kind of cutting-edge piece that Sloan might have hoped would spotlight the company in its new home at 1800 N. Clybourn. And at least one Remains board member (who didn’t want to be named) has apparently recognized the limitations of cheap tickets: “Imagine what we could have made on American Buffalo if we had been charging regular prices.” Sloan says the company is considering next season’s ticket policy and will make an announcement about it after July 1.

Northlight’s Loss

Also in flux is Northlight Theatre, which is facing the imminent departure of managing director Jeffrey Woodward, leaving after only eight months to take a Similar post at the McCarter Theatre Center for the Performing Arts in Princeton, New Jersey. Sources say McCarter offered Woodward a cushier salary and a company with a bigger budget. A Northlight spokeswoman said the theater’s board of directors had not decided how soon a search will start for Woodward’s successor. Northlight has weathered a lot recently, including expulsion from its old home on Green Bay Road and a quick move to the refurbished Coronet Theatre. But Woodward’s departure, along with the Remains changes, points up a troubling lack of managerial continuity surfacing in some of the city’s established notfor-profit theater companies–the last thing the industry needs right now.

Movie Update

The summer movie season is just moving into high gear, and already it can claim one expensive disaster, Hudson Hawk, a big-budget adventure movie starring Bruce Willis. Last weekend the film was pulling in three-day grosses in the piddling $1,700 range at some theaters around town. “It’s a bigger flop than last Christmas’s Bonfire of the Vanities,” lamented one exhibitor. Backdraft and Only the Lonely, both shot in Chicago, were doing better, though neither is likely to wind up a blockbuster. Exhibitors have high hopes for Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, starring Kevin Costner, which opens next weekend.

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