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 e-mailed things like, ‘Have you considered presenting the Merce Cunningham Dance Company? Did you know it’s their last year on tour?’ ” said Franke.
“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 iron-fisted intensity.
“Chicago’s gonna have one of the greatest dance festivals,” Emanuel vowed in a brief phone interview this 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.”
It’s no surprise that the hard-driving former White House chief of staff has big plans for his home town. 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 the Chicago Tribune — 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. He’ll also speak at one of the performances; free performances run Aug. 23-27.
Dance has long been a part of Emanuel’s life. After turning down the Joffrey scholarship, he studied dance at Sarah Lawrence College. But that wasn’t the end of it. He continued taking 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. He would steal time at the ballet barre on Saturdays, taking private lessons.
“The discipline is great, the stretch, the workout,” he said.
But he quit dancing 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 Dance Theater.
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 company.
“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. I love dance as an art form,” he continued. “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 may 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, who is the festival’s board chairman, met with Emanuel over a casual dinner some time ago, before he was elected mayor.
“We look at it as the beginning of something,” Franke said of the mayor’s involvement. “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 says, 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 class.
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.”