Ballet Chicago’s Close Call

Rumors were spreading swiftly late last week about a possible shutdown at Ballet Chicago due to a money shortage. But over the weekend new funds came in from members of the troupe’s board of directors and other friends of the organization, and a conference call between members of the board’s executive committee on Monday resulted in a decision to continue operating, at least for now. “We are moving forward,” says general manager Colleen Lober.

Late last week Lober confirmed that the company’s finances were in a critical state. She said a year-end appeal for donations had not met expectations. That shortfall, coupled with disappointing attendance at November’s holiday engagement at the Steppenwolf Theatre, precipitated the crisis.

Apparently the company still plans to open its first full-length ballet, Hansel and Gretel, in April–and tonight’s preview performance of selected sections of it is going on as planned–but four of the ten stops on a New England tour of the show that was slated to begin after its debut have been canceled. Lober wouldn’t specify exactly how much money the company needed as of last Friday, but indicated it was well into six figures. On Monday she said that not all of the needed funds had materialized over the weekend, but enough had come in to avert an immediate closure.

The question of whether Chicago could support a full-blown ballet company has remained unanswered ever since artistic director Daniel Duell created the company out of the ashes of prima ballerina Maria Tallchief’s Chicago City Ballet in 1988. Since its inception Ballet Chicago has lurched from one administrative upheaval to the next while struggling to build repertoire and an audience base. The board of directors erred repeatedly in the early days by bringing in high-priced management executives who were just plain incompetent or who lacked passion for the dance. Part of the problem may also have been Duell’s tendency to favor the cold, precise repertoire of George Balanchine. A source close to the company thinks Balanchine may have been too abstract for some audiences: “This is a town where you have a very unsophisticated audience for dance.” Perhaps sensing a need to broaden the troupe’s appeal, Duell brought in choreographer Gordon Peirce Schmidt in fall 1990. Schmidt’s By Django remains one of the company’s most charming and accessible pieces.

The Natives Are Friendly, but They Don’t Know Much About Soccer

Last week at the Illinois Association of Convention & Visitors Bureaus retreat, the Illinois Bureau of Tourism quietly unveiled a new advertising campaign. Created by the Chicago office of Ogilvy & Mather and set to debut as early as March, the new campaign will, in marketing parlance, seek to “brand” specific regions of the state. Southern Illinois, for example, will be sold as the Illinois Ozarks, while the region along the Mississippi River will be advertised as the Great River Road and central Illinois will be marketed as the Illinois Heritage District.

As in the past, Chicago will be the focus of a campaign all its own. Though efforts to sell the city in recent years have made it seem more like a sizzling Club Med outpost than an imposing midwestern metropolis–ads featured calypso music and sun-drenched, sailboat-filled shots of the lakefront–a bureau spokesman says this time around Chicago will be played up as a friendly, accessible, and safe place to visit with the tag line: “Chicago–It’s easy to do.” Television spots will use some strange humor to emphasize the point; one, for instance, will feature a family that comes to the city, parks the car, and takes off for the day. When they return from exploring Chicago’s many entertainment options, the car, which they have not had to use throughout their visit, is covered with cobwebs.

Next June, of course, Chicago will host the opening ceremonies to the World Cup, as well as several games, and the state has begun airing a television spot in key foreign countries–Spain, France, Germany, and England among them–to lure visitors. Like the ones soon to begin airing here, the foreign spot positions the city as an exciting but friendly place, while taking pains to point out that Chicago hasn’t traditionally been a soccer hotbed: it shows Chicagoans “fumbling around” with a soccer ball, says Illinois Department of Tourism spokesman Richard Locki. While that may be an honest tack, it may not encourage foreigners to perceive the city as a particularly worldly destination.

Soccer vs. Art

For all its potential to attract tourists and soccer aficionados to Chicago, the World Cup is making life difficult for at least two of the city’s long-established arts events. Last week the Mayor’s Office of Special Events informed organizers of the Old Town Art Fair and the Wells Street Art Fair, which normally run concurrently during the second weekend in June, that both would have to move their events to the first weekend in June or risk being canceled altogether. The order, if enforced, could mean huge financial losses for both fairs, which already have received deposits from a number of artists. Many of those artists would be unable to participate in the fairs if the dates were moved to the earlier weekend, according to Old Town Chamber of Commerce executive director Joyce Saxon, because that’s when the annual 57th Street Art Fair in Hyde Park is scheduled.

The order is part of a moratorium by the Mayor’s Office of Special Events on all activities around Chicago between June 10 and July 2 that the city believes could tax manpower in the numerous city departments that provide residents with services and protection. The Gay Pride Parade, the massive Taste of Chicago, and the Puerto Rican-Humboldt Park Festival are among the events that have switched dates. Susan Lock, deputy director of the Mayor’s Office of Special Events, says the moratorium was issued because the city is nervous about what it will confront as World Cup events unfold. “We’re just not sure how many visitors will pour into the city or how many heads of state will be here,” she says, “and we want to show the city off to best effect.” The office anticipates about 200,000 out-of-town visitors. But at least two events are being allowed to go on as originally scheduled: the annual gospel and blues festivals. Lock maintains they’re too closely tied to the city’s image in other parts of the world to be tampered with. Late last week aldermanic representatives for the Old Town and Wells Street fairs were meeting with the mayor’s director of special events, James Sheahan, to try to resolve the matter.

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