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Chicago Dancing Festival celebrates a milestone

Ballet West will perform Jiri Kylian’s “Sinfonietta” an homage Czech composer Leos Janacek Aug. 27 Pritzker PaviliMillennium Park. | Luke

Ballet West will perform Jiri Kylian’s “Sinfonietta,” an homage to Czech composer Leos Janacek, on Aug. 27 at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. | Luke Isley Photo

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♦ Aug. 23-27

♦ See schedule below for venues

♦ Free; Also, no tickets needed for Aug. 27 (visit website for availbility and instructions for ticketing to all other events)

♦ (773) 609-2335;

Updated: November 16, 2011 1:39AM

Timing is of the essence in dance. And the Chicago Dancing Festival is definitely on top of the beat at the moment.

Founded in 2007, this free, privately sponsored festival, which has lured tens of thousands of avid dance fans to its summer programs at Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion and other venues, is about to celebrate its fifth season. Originally just a single night’s event, this year it has evolved into a full week of activity at four different venues.

And, as luck would have it, a certain person with a whole lot of clout and a genuine love of dance recently arrived in City Hall. Not only has Mayor Rahm Emanuel signed on as Honorary Chair of the festival’s posh Aug. 22 gala at the Museum of Contemporary Art, but he also is expected to make welcoming remarks to the huge crowd sure to gather at Millenium Park on Aug. 27.

The Mayor’s days in the dance studio have been well documented (he studied at the Evanston School of Ballet and the Joel Hall Dance Center, and won a scholarship to the Joffrey Ballet that he turned down before heading to college). So, not surprisingly, he is quite the practiced aficionado of Chicago’s Terpsichorean history. He readily explains how this city, so renowned in many other art forms, came late to developing what is now an impressive dance scene. And he says his goal is to help rebrand Chicago as a cultural capital.

“Look, we have all the raw materials — five Tony Award-winning theaters, world-class architecture, two top art museums, the opera and symphony, as well as jazz, blues and rock, and now we have dance, too, — an art form I personally love and want to catapult into the pantheon,” said the Mayor during a recent chat.

“I want to use this festival, and other things I’m working on, so that people see Chicago as an epicenter of cultural life.

“The Chicago Dancing Festival is the largest free dance festival of its kind in the country. I want to get the word out to tourists — throughout the Midwest and beyond — that you can come here for a week and see the Joffrey Ballet and Hubbard Street and the Martha Graham troupe and all the rest for free. I also want everyone from throughout the city — people who might not ordinarily come downtown — to attend the festival. And I hope the festival also will begin to go into the neighborhoods.”

Will he subsidize such satellite festival events?

“No, the festival will do that,” said the cash-strapped mayor.

Created by choreographer Lar Lubovitch and dancer Jay Franke, the festival is one of those phenomena that came into being at exactly the right moment. Its programming choices might not always be ideal, but there is no denying it has grabbed the hearts and minds of the public, showcased dancers and companies rarely if ever seen here, and spotlighted some of our own dance talent. Nor can it be denied that it has consistently demonstrated the existence of a large, enthusiastic dance audience in this city.

“It has been amazing, truly thrilling, to be in Millennium Park on those festival nights, and to experience dance with thousands of other people,” said Michelle Boone, Chicago’s new Commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.

“And I know the mayor is interested in seeing how the city can use the festival as a platform to promote the rest of the season’s dance offerings, and to let the world know that Chicago is a national intersection for all this dance activity.”

For board chair David Herro, the festival’s budget tells an impressive story.

“In our first year we had no track record, so we were heavily self-subsidized and had a budget of $350,000 for one big night,” Herro explained. “Now we’re at about $650,000, with many more more foundations and others giving us support, and we are doing a full week of programming at many venues, with four times more performances at just double the cost.”

Co-founder Jay Franke said the festival would like to bring more international companies into the lineup, but it’s a matter of both availability and budget.

“We have to catch them as they are touring relatively nearby, or the cost is prohibitive,” Franke said. “The mayor, who really knows dance, said he wants us to grow and become a larger presence, but at this point I think our weeklong summer event is ideal.”

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