Dance for Life Grows Up Fast

After modest beginnings five years ago, the annual AIDS fund-raiser Dance for Life is now a major operation, with a board of directors and more than 2,000 volunteers working behind the scenes.

This year’s edition will be held Saturday at the Shubert Theatre and will feature an array of local talent. Some groups, including Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and the River North Dance Company, have performed in previous Dance for Life concerts, while others, such as the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago and the

Joel Hall Dance Company, are appearing for the first time.

Dance for Life was started by Keith Elliott, a dancer for nine years with the now defunct Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre. Elliott came up with the idea in the summer of 1991, when the Holmes company was on hiatus and Elliott was looking for something to do with his free time to benefit the AIDS cause. “I hate being bored,” he says. The first Dance for Life, held at the Organic Theatre, raised about $18,000. The top ticket price that year was $75, nowhere near the $500 now demanded for the best seats at the Shubert. This year’s cheapest ticket goes for $35. Dance for Life ticket holders paying more than $125 get a light dinner along with the performance, but not the lavish spread benefits typically give for such hefty outlays. “This event is really about raising money,” says Dance for Life coproducer Ben Bodelson, who estimates this year’s offering will gross $300,000. Last year’s event at Navy Pier had a top ticket of $250 and grossed close to $220,000. The net proceeds from the Shubert performance will go to Open Hand Chicago, the organization that provides meals to homebound people with AIDS, and to the Dance for Life Fund, which was set up by Elliott in 1994 to provide financial assistance to local dancers with AIDS.

Bodelson downplays the issue of whether members of the dance community have been priced out of the event. He maintains the $35 tickets are affordable to most dancers interested in contributing to a worthy cause. Gail Kalver, managing director of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and a board member at Dance for Life, says there was some debate about raising the top ticket price to $500, but it appears to have been a smart move. Bodelson says the $500 tickets are already sold out, and overall only a few hundred seats were still available a week before the event.

Stepping Into the Big Time

If the critically acclaimed Irish step-dancing extravaganza Riverdance establishes a toehold in the Chicago market this fall, hometown boy Michael Flatley may try to get his foot in the door as well. Arguably the world’s best practitioner of the art of Irish step dancing, Flatley is currently in London, starring in his own show called Lord of the Dance. Though reviews were mixed to negative in the wake of the production’s opening late last month (one London critic quipped “the ego has landed”), Flatley’s show has been selling out, and audiences are reportedly responding with standing ovations. Flatley told the Sunday Times newspaper that he would like to take Lord of the Dance “home” to Chicago in 1997. The 38-year-old dancer grew up in Chicago, but he left town in the late 1980s for Ireland, where he wound up as a star attraction in Riverdance. Flatley was paid approximately $75,000 a week, until he left the company last year after an ugly battle with producer Moya Doherty over a number of issues ranging from salary to billing to creative control to curtain calls. Flatley’s new show is now competing for audiences with the London staging of Riverdance, which has been playing for months to sold-out houses.

A second, 80-member company of Riverdance is scheduled to tour a handful of American cities this fall (it will settle into the Rosemont Theatre for three weeks beginning October 24). If the tour is a success, Flatley may decide to bring his own production stateside.

While Flatley has clearly succeeded on the international dance scene, he was a struggling young artist when he lived in Chicago. Local publicist Cindy Raymond recalls working with Flatley for eight months, trying to get him media exposure. But back then, Raymond says, it was difficult to get Flatley the kind of press coverage he so easily attracts today. “Nobody knew who he was,” she says, “but he was very determined in his desire to be a star.” Raymond says Flatley couldn’t always pay her fee, but he still managed to get some of the trappings of stardom, including a Mercedes. “He definitely liked to live on a larger-than-life scale.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Keith Elliot, Ben Bodelson by Jon Randolph.