When Jay Franke, artistic director of the Chicago Dancing Festival,
was planning this month’s spree of free performances, he got input from
an unusual source.
“It’s probably the first time in the history of any artistic director
that a mayor has emailed things like, ‘Have you considered presenting
the Merce Cunningham Dance Company? Did you know it’s their last year on
tour?’ ” Franke said.
“I was like, ‘Yes, Mayor Emanuel, we’re all aware of that. We couldn’t book them. We tried.’ ”
But having secured Rahm Emanuel, the recently ensconced mayor of
Chicago, as honorary chairman of the opening-night gala for the dance
festival, Franke quickly learned what President Obama and countless
Washington insiders know: You bring Emanuel on board, whether it’s for a
dance showcase or a stimulus bill, and you get princely ambitions and
“Chicago’s gonna have one of the greatest dance festivals,” Emanuel
vowed in a brief phone interview last week, his voice raspy but the
words tumbling at the rapid clip familiar from Sunday morning talk
shows. “We’re going to build it to be one of the great festivals of
dance in the country.”
Throughout the week of Aug. 23, 17 dance troupes and 200 dancers are scheduled to perform.
It’s no surprise that the hard-driving former White House chief of
staff has big plans for his hometown. And given Emanuel’s dance
background – at his mother’s prompting, he trained in ballet and modern
dance as a child and at 17 won a scholarship to dance with the Joffrey
Ballet – it’s not surprising that he champions the art form.
But his announcement that he wants to turn Chicago into an
“international destination for dance,” as he told a Chicago newspaper –
well, that’s not your standard mayoral initiative.
Then again, what other mayor has ever had such a strong interest in
dance and endorsed the art so publicly? In June, Emanuel was named
honorary chairman of the Joffrey Ballet’s board. In July, he addressed
the opening reception of the annual Dance/USA conference in Chicago,
jabbed a finger at the assembled company directors and declared, “This
city will be the heartbeat of dance in the entire country.”
And on Aug. 22, the mayor with unusually elegant posture will attend
the $250-a-head fundraising gala for the Chicago Dancing Festival at the
Museum of Contemporary Art.
Dance long has been a part of Emanuel’s life. After turning down the
Joffrey scholarship, he studied dance at Sarah Lawrence College. He took
ballet classes while working in Chicago, after his marriage and the
birth of his first child, even after entering politics and serving in
the Clinton White House as a senior aide.
“The discipline is great, the stretch, the workout,” he said.
He quit after the second of his three children was born. Now he does yoga and enjoys dance as a spectator.
While serving in the Obama administration, he’d squeeze in trips to
the Kennedy Center, where he saw the Mark Morris Dance Group and Paul
Taylor Dance Company, and he took his kids to see Alvin Ailey American
Emanuel, ever the politician, declined to compare the Washington and
Chicago dance scenes. But Chicago, with the Joffrey and Hubbard Street
Dance Chicago, has both a nationally known ballet and modern dance
“I do really love the art form,” Emanuel said. He rattled off its
virtues: “You have music; geometry, in the sense of space; you have the
interpretation through your body of music; and you have a concept. ...
Not many other art forms combine performance, music, lighting, costume,
plus you have the staging geometry and you have the discipline that only
the body can interpret.
“It’s not an accident that in the Bible, God says, ‘I have piped
music unto thee, and thee have not danced.’ ” Emanuel pauses, jokes that
he’s digging deep into his Sarah Lawrence schooling but confesses he
might not have the wording right. (It’s close.)
The serious tone returns: “It’s one of the rare art forms God embraces.”
Looking over the festival’s roster, you might wonder if that embrace had some influence in the programming.
It’s a stellar lineup: Cunningham’s soon-to-disband company will not
be there, but the Paul Taylor Dance Company will be, along with Martha
Graham Dance Company and members of the Joffrey Ballet, New York City
Ballet, Ballet West, Hubbard Street and others. Throughout the week, 17
troupes and 200 dancers will perform.
The festival, now in its fifth year, was founded by the choreographer
Lar Lubovitch and Franke, who had danced in Lubovitch’s company. Franke
and his partner, David Herro, the festival’s board chairman, met with
Emanuel over a casual dinner before he was elected mayor.
“We look at it as the beginning of something,” Franke said. “We have a little bit of star appeal now.”
What funding the mayor can bring in remains to be seen. For now, Emanuel has cast himself in the role of promoter-in-chief.
“Chicago has ‘great dance forms,’ ” Emanuel said, recapping his pitch
to Franke and Herro. “We’ve been known for our architecture, our opera,
our museums, and known for our music. Now we’re going to be known for
our dance. And now you have a mayor who has a particular interest in
this art form, which is unique, so let’s use it and build on it.”
But there was one leap even this committed dance lover refused to take.
During the festival, the organizers arrange an open ballet class for
all the dancers. Franke asked Emanuel if he would consider joining that
The answer was swift and sharp. More Emanuel the pit bull than Emanuel the prince.
“ ‘Absolutely not’ is a polite way of saying it,” Franke said. “He said no in a Rahm way.”
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