Sharon Hoyer’s Personal Best
Best of Chicago Dance 2021: In praise of Infrastructure
As I reflected on the best of Chicago dance in a year of shuttered venues and artists grappling with life in a pandemic, I kept coming back to infrastructure. Necessary and sufficient infrastructure, as they say in math, creates the conditions for a thing to thrive, be it commerce, children, or the arts. It’s a thing we don’t think about until it’s broken or absent, mostly invisible when it’s working as it should. In some ways, the forced halt of the last twenty months gave our nation the opportunity to stop and take stock of things we don’t tend to notice when running around. The result was a collective head shake at the shabby conditions of physical, virtual and economic systems that keep society functioning.
Good infrastructure, where it exists, is a catalyst for human creativity. Chicago is a standout in the performing arts on a world stage in no small part because of relatively abundant and growing infrastructure. And I’m not just talking about the theaters—from storefronts and dance studios that double as performance spaces to mid-sized black-box rooms to grand houses like the Auditorium Theatre. These spaces are the most visible forms of dance infrastructure in the city—they’re also the most obviously inequitable in their distribution, concentrated in the Loop and North Side. This is happily beginning to change; examples are the opening of the Green Line Performing Arts Center in 2018 and Red Clay Dance Academy this year. Chicago’s flourishing dance scene is part “if you build it, they will come” and part “no one has built here, so we’ll build it ourselves.”
Necessary and sufficient infrastructure, as they say in math, creates the conditions for a thing to thrive, be it commerce, children, or the arts. It’s a thing we don’t think about until it’s broken or absent, mostly invisible when it’s working as it should.
And let’s not forget about funding. To be clear, there’s not enough of this for artists in the United States and dance artists least of all. But Chicago has a gem of a dance incubation nonprofit in the Chicago Dancemakers Forum, which understands that just because a stage is dark, it doesn’t mean performers aren’t working hard and cooking up ideas. CDF has long supported dance artists with substantial, no-strings grants—meaning no final polished product required, just resources to give artists the key ingredient for creativity: Time and space to think, experiment, collaborate. When the pandemic struck, CDF amped up their efforts to get resources to artists who were continuing to make work. At a time when presenters were forced to refund tickets and cancel performances that provide valuable revenue streams, CDF added a new bucket of grants specifically for video and online presentation. They also facilitated creative exchange between ten Hubbard Street dancers and ten past CDF awardees; again, the intention was incubation. Founding executive director Ginger Farley just announced she’s stepping down at the end of this year, leaving the organization in its strongest shape to date, if with giant shoes to fill.
A new sustaining financial source for historically sidelined companies was announced by the Joyce Foundation and the Logan Center for the Arts shortly before the pandemic: The Black Dance Legacy Project, which provides multi-year funding, training and administrative support to eight Black-led Chicago companies working in African, contemporary, modern and jazz dance traditions. It’s an infrastructural project bar none—a restorative investment that will make Chicago’s world-class dance scene even more abundant and reflective of the cultural richness of our city.
From Night Out in the Parks, which hired a hundred dancers, musicians, circus and theater artists in 2021 to put on free outdoor performances in every corner of the city—a summer staple of accessible arts programming before, during and after the pandemic—to “Ground Cover,” artist Dan Peterman’s ballroom-sized open-air dance floor art installation made from post-consumer plastic and the site of SummerDance in non-pandemic times, Chicago has solid and enduring performing arts infrastructure. The artists, administrators and institutions that rallied to shore up resources, build spaces and create abundance in lean times are the Best of Chicago.
Best of Chicago 2021