Tania Castroverde Moskalenko, the new chief executive officer of the Auditorium Theatre, spends her working hours in an office in the Roosevelt University building on Michigan Avenue. But, just about two weeks into her tenure, when it was time for a chat with a reporter, she opted for atmosphere. And that meant a quick walk around the corner to the landmark, 3,900-seat Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan theater itself, which opened in 1889 and has acquired an illustrious history in the intervening years.
Up a steep and very narrow stairway (apologies to “A Chorus Line”), we reached one of the boxes where the seats are upholstered in a golden velvet that captures the overall glow of the theater itself. Castroverde Moskalenko, who had seen her first performance ever in the theater just a few nights earlier (the Joffrey Ballet’s “Romeo and Juliet”), had clearly fallen under its spell. But it was just the latest crush in a life whose driving force has been a passion for the arts.
Asked to outline her job description at the Auditorium, a non-profit entity with an annual budget of about $12 million, its new leader said: “I must oversee the branding, marketing, fundraising and programming for the theater, and deal with matters of perception, politics and history. My goal is to put the theater more firmly in the hearts and minds of everyone in Chicago — to promote it as a home for the Joffrey Ballet and for the annual visits of the Alvin Ailey company, and to enhance its identity as a presenter of dance [including major international dance companies], top musical performers and other events, including Broadway shows and operas.”
“Of course, as a great believer in the transformative power of the arts — and I am living proof of it — I plan to put a big emphasis on outreach. The arts are such a powerful form of education, and I want to get immersed with the team already in place, and increase the participation of donors, board members and patrons.”
Born in Cuba, Castroverde Moskalenoko, 55, arrived in Miami with her family as political refugees at the age of six. She knew just two words in English — monkey and pencil. And as she recounted in a piece written for the National Endowment for the Arts: “Two years after my family arrived in America, a truckload of furniture was delivered to our newly purchased ranch home. The first item off the truck was a brand new white spinet piano. After the truck was unloaded, my mother sat at the piano to play the music of Cuba’s greatest classical music composer, Ernesto Lecuona. As she played, she began to weep. This beloved music brought all of her emotions to the surface. At that moment, my love of the arts was born. I was eight years old.”
Although she dreamed about becoming a dancer, it would be a number of years before her parents could afford to enroll her in ballet lessons. Meanwhile, she headed to her public school’s library to learn about music and dance, and listened to classical music on the radio. By the time she was close to finishing a college degree in Miami she was offered a full scholarship at the University of Memphis, Tn., and ultimately earned her BFA in theater and dance there, all the time working at outside jobs and gradually making a segue into arts administration. (She is now earning a Master’s degree from Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.)
She served as director of the Buckman Performing & Fine Arts Center in Memphis from 1998-2005, before moving on to become executive director of the Germantown Performing Arts Centre in Tennessee, where she stabilized its finances, diversified programming, and established a youth symphony orchestra. In 2012 she joined Indiana’s Center for the Performing Arts whose Carmel-based non-profit organization’s $175 million campus is home to a 1,600-seat concert hall, a 500-seat theater and a 200-seat studio theater, as well as the Great American Songbook Foundation. During her four years in Indiana she helped stabilize the sprawling organization, and found a way to ease the need for massive city support through a sustainable mix of programming.
Along the way, Moskalenko also has raised five children — three (the oldest of whom is now 30 and working in New York) with her first husband, and eight-year-old twins from her second marriage to Alexei Moskalenko, who she met while taking company class at Ballet Memphis, where he was a principal dancer. A former Bolshoi Ballet dancer who left the company during its tour to the U.S. in “glasnost” era 1992, he has worked since 2001 as rehearsal director, master teacher, judge, tour director and now assistant artistic director for the New York-based Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP), the largest global network of dance whose elaborate competitions program is a showcase where many young dancers find their initial placement in ballet companies around the world.
“When I learned that [fabled ballerina] Anna Pavlova had once performed at the Auditorium Theatre I was truly thrilled,” said Castroverde Moskalenko, who said one of her challenges will be to “keep a 127-year-old building up and running, and in top condition.” (Audiences are sure to notice the new golden glow in the lobby, where LED bulbs have been placed in the fixtures.)
Meanwhile, the next major event to be presented at the Auditorium will be the Lizt Alfonso Dance Cuba company in “Cuba Vibra!” (Nov. 5-6), an evocation of a hot night in Havana that features a fusion of cha-cha, rumba, conga, bolero and mambo, with 18 dancers moving to the Afro-Cuban beats of a seven-member on-stage band with vocalist.
“I’ve known Lizt for 15 years,” said Castroverde Moskalenko. “So this is a wonderfully serendipitous, totally coincidental thing.”