Last Dance for Chicago Repertory Dance Ensemble

Chicago’s shrinking dance scene suffered another blow last week with the demise of the 11-year-old Chicago Repertory Dance Ensemble. Members of the dance community responded to the news with regret. “I think it’s unfortunate,” says former member Timothy O’Slynne. “My heart goes out to the dancers in the company.”

Perhaps CRDE’s most important contribution to the dance community was its “Made in Chicago” initiative that featured the choreography of company members created in collaboration with local composers, designers, and visual artists. But that innovative program may have played a part in the company’s downturn as small dancer/choreographer collectives sprouted within the company and splintered its overall creative direction. “In my opinion, CRDE suffered from a lack of artistic focus,” says O’Slynne, who along with two other ensemble members left the company under strained circumstances to form Xsight! Performance Group.

Along with artistic problems, the ensemble faced what its administrative staff considered unwinnable financial and marketing struggles. Reflecting on the company’s history while cleaning out its offices, founder and artistic director Tara Mitton said shutting down the company was the smart thing to do. “I don’t think we could have continued to do the quality work I wanted to do with the money we saw coming in for next season,” she explained, “so we are closing the books on the Chicago Repertory Dance Ensemble with all our bills paid.”

Folding the company with its finances in order is, in Mitton’s opinion, a positive action for the entire dance community. “Dance companies have a bad reputation for not being well-run businesses,” says Mitton. “I wanted to shut down with all our bills paid.” Several years ago CRDE faced an $85,000 deficit and gamely fought its way back into the black.

Recently, though, Mitton and the company’s board of directors saw the purse strings tightening everywhere they looked. “Every time we would go to a corporation to ask for support,” says Mitton, “we would find that their guidelines for contributions had changed and that they were shifting their contributions from the arts to organizations dealing with social issues.”

During the past three seasons the ensemble’s operating budget shrank by about $60,000 a year to around $160,000 for the 1991-92 season. Even on such a paltry budget Mitton managed to pay seven dancers a small salary from August through May. “It wasn’t nearly what they deserved to get for working so hard,” adds Mitton. Ironically, when the decision was made to close up shop, CRDE was in the midst of developing a long-term plan for its second decade with the help of a $25,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Like most local dance companies, CRDE survived through the years primarily by touring nationally and internationally. The company performed as far afield as Australia, Alaska, and Europe, but Mitton says presenters elsewhere were cutting back on their budgets for dance performances and refusing to book the same company two years in a row.

The company was also forever battling the problem of a low profile on its home turf, where CRDE was never able to draw a substantial audience. The company made its last major downtown appearances in 1988 and 1989, when it appeared at the Civic Theatre as part of the Civic Center for Performing Arts’ (now Civic Stages Chicago) high-visibility Spring Festival of Dance. But CRDE was not invited back after 1989. “They lost money for us both years,” notes Fred Solari, managing director at Civic Stages. “And we weren’t going to be the National Endowment for the Arts for them.”

In its heyday in the mid- to late-80s CRDE served as a useful training ground for talented dancers and choreographers. But, from Mitton’s perspective, the Chicago dance community she helped foster isn’t the happy place it once was. “Right now, I think the community is fractured and isolated,” she says. While her immediate plans are uncertain, she said last week that she hoped to keep a toe in the dance world: ‘Maybe I’ll create a new little company of choreographers.”

More Musicals: Pegasus Announces a Singing Season

Music is in tile air at Pegasus Players. Lots of it. Three of next season’s five productions are musicals: You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow–A Stephen Sondheim Evening, the Gershwin opus Strike Up the Band, and a mounting of the Broadway hit Once on This Island, which will be coproduced with New York-based Big League Theatricals and sent on a national tour after its run here. Last season was no different; the company presented Barnum, Jump for Joy, and Buddy … The Buddy Holly Story, now running at Truman College’s O’Rourke Performing Arts Center.

Pegasus executives insist the heavy menu of musicals isn’t a sign the company is turning into a musical theater producer. “It’s just a coincidence,” maintains artistic director Arlene Crewdson. “When I looked at what was available to us that was commercial and socially relevant, the choices just happened to be musicals.

Managing director Alan Salzenstein says part of the problem is the company’s size. “We’re at an awkward stage in our development,” he says. “We’re not a small theater company anymore, but we’re not in a league with the big players yet either.” Consequently New York agents and producers have been reluctant to grant the organization rights to hot new properties. The company lost out on at least two plays it was trying to get for next season, Alan Ayckbourn’s Man of the Moment and Jon Robin Baitz’s The Substance of Fire.

Still, the musicals Pegasus has presented in recent years have raised the company’s profile, generated new income, and boosted attendance. Last season’s revival of JUMP for Joy, for example, drew the largest crowds in the company’s 13-year history. The shows that have been sent out on tour in conjunction with Big League Theatricals, including Barnum and Into the Woods, have provided relatively long-term jobs to local actors while earning Pegasus a small weekly royalty in the tour’s first several months. Despite the benefits musicals have brought to the company, Crewdson says there is a downside: “They cost more to produce.” Pegasus’s operating budget has more than doubled in the past five years from $300,000 during the 1987-88 season to $700,000 for next year.