Ever since it leaped onto the scene in 2007, the Chicago Dancing Festival has been a highlight of the summer season, right up there with the Grant Park Orchestra and the best of the city’s other fests. Founded by choreographer Lar Lubovitch and dancer Jay Franke, it started as a single event—a stunning free evening of dance by some of the world’s best companies held in the equally stunning Pritzker Pavilion. An instant hit, it drew 8,500 people its first year, and as many as 12,000 in years since, adding more days and events with each edition. This year, besides hometown troupes like the Joffrey Ballet, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, and River North Chicago Dance Company, the lineup includes Ballet West, Martha Graham Dance Company, Paul Taylor Dance Company, and the New York City Ballet.

It’s all still free, but the indoor events leading up to the big night at Pritzker are ticketed, and snagging those tickets has never been easy. Admirably democratic intentions, combined with limited seating and huge demand, create the kind of pressure cooker more often associated with rock and pop concerts. CDF has continued to tweak the process, trying to ease it up, and this year they introduced a couple of promising innovations. In the past you got tickets by either showing up at the box office as close as possible to the appointed release hour, or by competing with thousands of others in a desperate game of telephone roulette. But this year there was an online reservation option for some performances, including a couple of intriguing events at the smallest venue, the Museum of Contemporary Art. Even more promising, for the first time, one lead-up event would be held in a major space: the 3,800-seat Auditorium Theatre, a huge expansion of audience capacity.

Thus encouraged, and in spite of past disappointments, I decided to give it a try. The rules were laid out on the CDF website. There’s a benefit on August 22 (because, you know, the money—nearly $700,000 this year—has to come from somewhere). But the festival itself, August 23 to 27, will consist of seven performances of five programs at four venues, plus a full day of dance movies at the Cultural Center. The films, like the grand finale, are ticketless. Tickets for the other events (at the MCA, the Harris, and the Auditorium) would be released at the box office for each venue, on a “staggered” schedule: various times on three consecutive days, starting at 10 AM on July 19. Patrons would be allowed a pair of seats for each event.

Fair enough. At 9:59 AM last Tuesday, I positioned myself at my landline and dialed up the MCA. A canned voice informed me that that the box office was not yet open. After that: two and a half hours of busy signals, interspersed with searches of the MCA website for the online reservation option I knew had to be there but wasn’t. When I finally got through to the box office at 1:10 PM, a genuinely sorry-sounding agent explained that the website had been overwhelmed and shut down as soon as it went up, and the phones were so jammed people had been on hold “for hours.” All the tickets for events at the MCA had been disbursed by 12:30.

At noon on Wednesday, when Harris Theater tickets were to be released, I was back in the saddle, sweating, punching redial, and getting busy signals peppered with commands to check the area code or number. But this time, after a mere 35 minutes—bingo! like winning a tiny, really special Lotto—I was in and on hold, and 12 minutes after that, I’d landed tickets for opening night. The next day’s release, handled by Ticketmaster, was completely automated and flawless: an immediate connection, five minutes of robo chat, a confirmation number, and then, as I braced for the service charge, something really impressive, a word I’d never heard or expected to hear from the mouth of Ticketmaster: “Zero.”

Really? No service charge? Could that be?

Well, not exactly. No charge for me or you. CDF—was there ever an arts presenter so commendable?—is picking up what executive director Evin Eubanks calls a “nominal” processing fee worked out with Ticketmaster.

At press time the MCA and one of the Harris Theater events were “sold” out, but there were still tickets available for the Harris matinee at noon Wednesday, August 24, as well as the August 25 Auditorium Theatre performance featuring Hubbard Street Dance and the Martha Graham and Lar Lubovitch companies. And each venue will have a standby list, starting about an hour before the performance. The chances of landing a seat that way are decent. Because, sorry creatures that we are, when we get it for free—no matter how hard the getting—there will always be no-shows. 

E-mail Deanna Isaacs at disaacs@chicagoreader.com.