One Singular Sensation
Dance for Life Chicago Presents a Spectacular One-of-a-Kind AIDS Fundraiser
by Chip Alfred
Some of Chicago’s foremost dancers and choreographers have been doing something extraordinary one night each year for the past two decades. Members of six of the Windy City’s top dance companies donate their time for a special evening of performance, memories, and celebration—all to support HIV/AIDS services, education and prevention. Like the theme song from A Chorus Line, another dance-themed production, this show is without a doubt “One Singular Sensation.” But unlike the hit Broadway musical, we’re not talking about dancers in the chorus here. Dance for Life spotlights the best of the best Chicago’s dance world has to offer.
“It’s a labor of love and passion,” explains Harrison McEldowney, one of two internationally-renowned choreographers creating a world premiere piece for Dance for Life Chicago (DFLC). Reflecting on the early days of AIDS as a dancer living in New York, he says, “Nobody was really paying attention to what was going on. I lost a lot of friends.” McEldowney, fifty, started as a dancer with DFLC in the mid-1990s, and has worked on the project ever since. His personal connection to DFLC is two-fold. “It means keeping the friends that I lost close at heart. All the numbers are a tribute to them.” But DFLC isn’t just about the past. It’s also about the here and now with a look toward the future. “It’s putting the younger generation of dancers on stage who didn’t experience what the rest of us did, making them a part of the legacy…and giving them a sense of pride and a sense of community.”
Dance for Life began in the late 1980s when Chicago dancer Keith Elliott partnered with AIDS activist Danny Kopelson and other dance professionals. “They created this event organically and from the heart,” says DFLC producer Anthony Guerrero. “They knew that the dancers and artists in their world were dying at alarming rates.” Understanding that dancers may lack the financial means to support the cause, the organizers tapped into the dance community’s most valuable resource—their talent. The first Dance for Life, held in 1992, featured four dance troupes in a 400-seat theater. Every ticket was sold, and there hasn’t been an empty seat in the house for the past twenty years. Even when the event moved to the Auditorium Theater at Roosevelt University with more than 3,000 seats, the dancers still performed to a sell-out crowd. Dance for Life 2012 will be held on Saturday, August 18, with a pre-performance gala reception at the Chicago Hilton. It’s the Midwest’s largest performing arts fundraiser for HIV/AIDS, and has raised a total of more than $4 million. Funds raised through Dance for Life benefit the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, the Dancers’ Fund, and the Chicago Women’s AIDS Project.
The participating performing organizations represent a diverse blend of cultures, dance genres, and musical styles. The Joffrey Ballet, a trailblazing dance company, was the first to perform at the White House and the first to appear on television. The Joffrey has become one of the country’s most revered arts organizations and among the world’s preeminent dance companies.
Giordano Dance Chicago (GDC) is one of the nation’s premier jazz dance troupes. Rated by the Chicago Sun Times “in the front ranks of this city’s resident companies,” GDC has captivated audiences across the globe with its dynamic and masterful performances.
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago is an original force in contemporary dance. With its exuberant artistry and innovative repertoire, Hubbard Street has received critical acclaim for entertaining and engaging audiences worldwide.
River North Dance Chicago, dedicated to the advancement of jazz-based contemporary dance, has established itself as an outstanding dance company, gaining national and international recognition for its athletic precision and bold theatrical flair.
Luna Negra Dance Theater celebrates the richness and diversity of Latino culture through the creation of works by contemporary Latino choreographers, performed with verve, power, and passion.
Ron de Jesus Dance, inspired by the company’s award-winning founder, creates contemporary works that facilitate dialogue within and across cultures. “Performing like that is to be sought out and cherished,” writes New York Times dance critic Jennifer Dunning.
This year’s Dance for Life comprises the most performances in the project’s history, with each dance group presenting its own piece in addition to the two original pieces showcasing dancers from all of the companies. The grand finale is the creation of Randy Duncan, an award-winning choreographer known as one of the most original and exciting young American artists. The Act I finale, featuring contemporary music and high-flying dancers, is choreographed by McEldowney, in collaboration with Jeremy Plummer and C5, a company that combines choreography with aerial acrobatics.
Similarly to McEldowney, Guerrero got involved with DFLC after working in the performing arts in New York and seeing the impact of HIV/AIDS. “It was all around
me,” he recalls. But in Chicago it hit closer to home. When several of his closest friends recently became infected, he decided to focus his career on AIDS fundraising. Formerly DFLC’s assistant producer, Guerrero, thirty-six, is thrilled to be at the helm for the first time. “I fell in love with Dance for Life last year,” he admits. “It’s a beautiful night and hopefully people will be inspired and emotionally taken away for two hours. You don’t have to be a connoisseur of dance or the dance world to appreciate the evening. There’s a little bit of something for everybody.”
Lori Hill, a loyal DFLC fan, agrees. “It’s a rare opportunity to see so many of Chicago’s dance troupes performing in one program.” The finale is “always memorable…a unique treat that can’t be seen anywhere else or ever again.” Hill adds that she’s proud to support “such a meaningful and worthy cause.”
HIV/AIDS has taken its toll on Chicago, as it has in most major U.S. cities. In 2009, Illinois ranked eighth among states with the most people living with HIV, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health and the CDC. An estimated sixty-five percent of the HIV diagnoses in Illinois are in Chicago. Among cities with the highest number of cumulative HIV diagnoses, Chicago is sixth in the nation. McEldowney asserts that catastrophic events like the AIDS pandemic foster unity. With Dance for Life, “you have the experience of what happens when people come together to address something that is devastating. I think it is one of the most powerful things that we do in the world.” Kevin McGirr, who has attended DFLC performances for ten years, comments, “It’s about the camaraderie, the conviviality and the compassion…ultimately, however, it’s about the cause.” McEldowney declares, “You can’t help being affected by the energy and the amazing talent on stage. It’s not like anything they will see any other time of the year and they’re talking about it until the next one comes around.”
For tickets or more information, log on to www.danceforlifechicago.com. To learn about the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, log on to www.aidschicago.org. For details on the Chicago Women’s AIDS Project, visit www.cwapchicago.org.
Chip Alfred is Editor at Large of A&U and a nationally published freelance journalist based in Philadelphia.