Chicago firefighters on the scene at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance last month, after an electrical fire broke out
Chicago firefighters on the scene at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance last month, after an electrical fire broke out Credit: Jürgen Tessmann

The first reports, on February 19, that the Harris Theater for Music and Dance had been shut down by a fire got a gut reaction from me.

Anyone who’s been to the Harris knows that the place is a bunker, built mostly underground in order to preserve the open space of the Millennium Park land on which it stands. The imposing vertical lobby on Upper Randolph is mainly a departure point for the windowless, concrete-walled nether regions, which are connected by a formidable pair of zigzagging staircases leading down, down, down.

I’ve developed an affection for this ugly duck over the ten years of its existence. Once you get safely to your seat in the auditorium, the sight lines and acoustics are great. But it still reminds me of a subway station, or a bomb shelter, or—when I’m squeezing into one of the sparse elevators—the coal mine at the Museum of Science and Industry.

I’m told there are 24 doors on the lower level that’ll take you out to the street or into the adjacent garage. I still find it claustrophobic.

So the idea of a fire there is alarming.

Just three days earlier, the Harris had put out a jubilant statement announcing that a totally different disaster had been averted. Costumes for one of the most anticipated offerings of the season, the internationally celebrated Hamburg Ballet, headed by onetime Chicagoan John Neumeier, were stuck on a storm-delayed freighter. They wouldn’t make it to Chicago in time for the performances on February 19 and 20 of a signature Neumeier piece, Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler.

That crisis was resolved before the public heard about it, when the legendary Paris Opera Ballet, another recent visitor to the Harris and one of the few other companies with the piece in their repertoires, came to the rescue, shipping its own costumes to Chicago by air. The Harris popped for alterations, and everything was back on track.

Until near the end of dress rehearsal, on the day of the first performance, when dancers onstage and in the dressing rooms were startled by two loud, crackling pops and saw smoke begin to rise. Communications head Jérôme Cholet, writing on the Hamburg Ballet blog, noted (in German) that “Since the Harris Theater [is] located mostly underground, the agitation was great.” The dancers, in their workout clothes and ballet slippers, quickly evacuated out onto the chilly street, then took refuge in the pedway, wondering if the show would go on.

“Since the Harris Theater [is] located mostly underground, the agitation was great.”—Hamburg Ballet communications head Jérôme Cholet, writing on the troupe’s blog

It didn’t. No one was injured, and there was no structural damage to the building, but Harris Theater president and managing director Michael Tiknis says a powerful electrical surge, probably caused by leaking water (the outdoor temperature had risen to 45 degrees that day), had burned out the controls for the theater’s sprinkler system. The Harris would be shut down for at least two weeks. The Hamburg Ballet, traveling with about 100 dancers and staff members, returned to Germany two days later, its performances canceled. Neumeier issued a statement saying he was devastated; this was the only time he’d had to cancel in his 44 years as a ballet director.

Also canceled, but rescheduled: Chicago Opera Theater’s staging of Duke Ellington’s “street opera,” Queenie Pie, which was to begin its second weekend of performances February 21 but will instead run March 19, 20, and 23, and Music of the Baroque’s “Handel & Bach—Italian Style,” now set for April 21. A Joffrey Academy of Dance awards program moved to another venue. Last week only the dates for an Alonzo King LINES Ballet program and a noon-hour “Eat to the Beat” performance remained TBD.

Tiknis says insurance will cover the interruption of business costs, including refunds for the Hamburg Ballet programs. “It’s more of an emotional than a financial toll,” he says. “We hated to lose such a great company and will have them back, with this repertoire, perhaps as early as next year.”

The Harris is slated to reopen Saturday, March 8, with Thodos Dance Chicago‘s Winter Concert. And Tiknis says it will stay open during another construction project, set to begin in late May or early June. Last fall the Harris, which now has an annual operating budget of $6 to $9 million, launched a $38.8 million fund-raising campaign. About $25 million has already been raised from the board itself, Tiknis says.

The bulk of it will support programming. That means money for the rental subsidies, marketing, and “bootstrap” assistance for small and midsize local groups that have always been the Harris’s mission—currently it’s host to 35 resident companies. Funds will also go toward its increasingly high-profile producing efforts under the rubric “Harris Theater Presents,” which has been bringing in companies like the Hamburg Ballet and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and looks like a significant—take your pick—expansion or shift of the original mission.

But Tiknis says Harris Theater Presents is “consistent” with the mission of fostering local performance groups. Not only do visiting artists often collaborate with resident companies, they bring in new audiences, and “in order to nurture these companies, we need to become a destination that is known.”

First among the Harris’s goals for the next decade: to “become further recognized internationally for its ongoing commitment to artistic excellence, innovation and courageous exploration.”

(Does that sound familiar? The Harris’s 2012 honorary gala chair was former dancer Rahm Emanuel.)

But $10 million will be spent on renovations to the building intended to correct problems that have been obvious since it opened. Two new glass elevators will be installed; they’ll flank the lobby staircases, which will get their own new central handrail. The two center-aisle stairways in the auditorium, currently a pretty good test of patrons’ balance, are also likely to get handrails. And the lower lobby will get a high-ceilinged street-side addition that’ll bump it out 15 feet and give it—and those patrons—some breathing room.