The Turning Point?

River North Dance Company is preparing for its tenth anniversary next season, but celebrating the company’s first decade could be more pleasant than contemplating its second. Sales for the company’s annual engagement at Dance Chicago fell about 200 tickets in 1997 and another 300 this year, representing a drop of 20 percent since 1996. General manager Joan Stevens, who’d been at River North since its inception, resigned last month; Ann Marie Beyers, previously an associate director of marketing at the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, was named acting general manager after being hired as Stevens’s assistant only a few weeks earlier. The company’s board of directors hasn’t decided whether to search for a replacement or give Beyers the job permanently, and neither she nor board president Eugene Zeffren would discuss Stevens’s departure. “I feel we are now moving in a direction that is right for the company,” says Zeffren, “and it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the performance of a former employee.”

Beyers thinks the company’s opening slot in the Dance Chicago series helped to depress ticket sales. “Publicity surrounding the festival hadn’t had a chance to kick in,” she says. Yet the company was offered the slot presumably because of its past popularity and supposed drawing power. Fred Solari, general manager of the Athenaeum Theatre and cofounder of Dance Chicago, thinks the company must do more to connect with its audiences. “If they don’t do something about it, the situation won’t change,” he says. River North performances have typically cost more than other events in the series, and Solari wonders whether this might have affected sales: this year River North tickets went for $25 while all other performances were $15. “You could almost see two other shows for the price of one ticket to River North,” he points out, “and I think a lot of people decided to do just that.”

“We may very well need to review our pricing strategy at the dance festival,” Zeffren admits. He also thinks the company needs to raise its visibility. To that end, Beyers will devote much of her time to fund-raising, with a significant chunk of any new funds earmarked for marketing initiatives. (Assisting Beyers will be Kendra Miller, the company’s new director of development; Miller formerly worked for Shakespeare Repertory as associate director of corporate, foundations, and government relations.) But a company can’t raise its visibility without performing, and River North’s only extended appearance in the city each year is at Dance Chicago. The group has continually expanded its touring schedule, employing 14 dancers for 38 weeks a year, and many of them pursue lucrative gigs on cruise ships and in industrial shows when not working for River North. The company’s limited schedule in the city isn’t unusual, but co-artistic director Sherry Zunker Dow says the company hopes to increase the number of performances in Chicago during the anniversary season.

In the end, however, attention-grabbing new repertoire may be the only thing to boost ticket sales. “There isn’t the same excitement building around the company that there was as recently as two years ago,” says Solari. In the early 90s Reality of a Dreamer was a huge hit for the company and led to a taping for Channel 11 that’s still being broadcast. During similar slumps Hubbard Street Dance Chicago has bought pieces from high-profile choreographers like Twyla Tharp, David Parsons, and Jiri Kylian and succeeded in regaining its momentum. Artistic directors Zunker Dow and Frank Chaves have created a number of works for the company and plan to collaborate on a new piece for next year, but Zunker Dow says they’re trying to bring in new blood all the time, as well as remounting popular works by Randy Duncan and pieces from the defunct Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre. Overall Zunker Dow says she’s happy with the company’s repertoire: “We want to do work that proves art and entertainment can be done together.”

Kohl Cuts

Last month this column reported that John Cartland had resigned after only 15 months as chief executive officer of the Kohl Children’s Museum in Wilmette. Now several sources familiar with events confirm that three other staffers got the ax after Cartland disappeared. On September 2, manager of special events Tracy Caswell, manager of individual gifts Pam Kerr, and director of public relations Maureen Huss all found themselves waiting outside the office of founder Dolores Kohl. One by one they were called in and fired. Sheridan Turner, chief operating officer, had been hired by Cartland and reported to work at the museum the next day; he confirms that the three individuals were let go because of financial cutbacks: “Our revenue wasn’t enough to meet expenses.” Turner said Cartland was unable to generate new income fast enough, but Caswell suggests that Kohl ensured Cartland’s failure by sharply curtailing her annual contribution to the museum while he was on the job. “She cut out about $150,000 from her $600,000 contribution,” says Caswell. Cartland could not confirm this figure, but he did concede that Kohl “was cutting back” on her contribution. Despite all the bloodletting, Turner insists the museum can prosper: “This is really a wonderful institution.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Frank Chaves, Ann Marie Beyers, and Sherry Zunker Dow photo by Dan Machnik.