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Chicago’s dance companies feeling the economic impact of coronavirus on the arts

Industry leaders fear that some companies won’t recover from this crisis at all and others could come back in a weakened or reduced form.

Deeply Rooted Dance Theater has postponed its upcoming production of  “GOSHEN” due to the coronavirus shut-down of all theaters amid social distancing mandates.
Deeply Rooted Dance Theater has postponed its upcoming production of “GOSHEN” due to the coronavirus shut-down of all theaters amid social distancing mandates.
Ken Carl

Non-profit dance companies across Illinois expect to lose more than $4.5 million in revenues through April 30 because of shutdowns related to the coronavirus, according to a survey conducted by Arts Alliance Illinois, and the numbers will likely run much higher.

Thirty-two companies responded to the survey, and that’s just a fraction of the state’s dance organizations. In Chicago alone, See Chicago Dance reports having more than 88 members, and at least 100 additional companies use its marketing resources.

Put simply, the state’s dance scene has taken a body blow. Indeed, industry leaders fear that some companies won’t recover from this crisis at all and others could come back in a weakened or reduced form.

“Not only the Joffrey, for all of us, it’s a precarious time,” said Ashley Wheater, artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet. “And the arts are so fragile as it is.”

Kevin Iega Jeff, co-founder and creative director of Deeply Rooted Dance Theater, believes his company can get by as long as the restrictions related to COVID-19 conclude by May. “If it goes beyond that, then we are starting to get into real trouble.”

Natya Dance Theatre’s “INAI — The Connection” enjoyed its world premiere in 2019 at the Dance Center of Columbia College.
Natya Dance Theatre’s “INAI — The Connection” enjoyed its world premiere in 2019 at the Dance Center of Columbia College.
Ravi Ganapathy

One ray of hope could come Wednesday. State and city officials are expected to announce a relief fund for the Illinois cultural sector to be administered by the Arts Alliance. Funds would come from the City of Chicago and private and corporate donors.

In addition, the recently passed $2.2 trillion stimulus bill includes $75 million each for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for Humanities. These agencies will distribute 40 percent to state and regional arts agencies for re-granting, and the rest will go directly to applicant organizations nationwide.

Moreover, according to Americans for the Arts, qualifying arts organizations will be able to apply for other emergency help contained in the stimulus bill. Such aid includes $5 billion in community development block grants and $350 billion in emergency loans from the Small Business Administration.

“I do think if there is not a concentrated effort to support arts organizations through this, they will be missed,” said Vershawn Sanders-Ward, founder and artistic director of the Red Clay Dance Co. “People won’t really realize it until we’re on the other side of this and they see who is no longer there for their community.”

According to the Arts Alliance survey, nearly 2,500 dance performances and programs statewide have been affected by the COVID-19 shutdown. Here is a quick look at its impact on six Chicago companies:

  • Deeply Rooted Dance Theater (annual budget, $1.1 million). The company, which marks its 25th anniversary in 2021, expects to take a $700,000 hit. It announced March 25 that it was postponing “GOSHEN,” an ambitious new collaboration with Broadway in Chicago that was to include possible touring.
  • Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater (annual budget, $1.2 million). International travel restrictions forced the cancellation of the 44th American Spanish Dance & Music Festival in late June, the $200,000 culmination of the company’s season. Jorge Perez, executive director and associate artistic director, called it a “big setback.”
  • Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (annual budget, $6.5 million). In a letter sent to patrons, the company said it expects the coronavirus’ financial impact to be “well in excess of $1 million.” The biggest casualty is the closing “indefinitely” of the Lou Conte Dance Studio, which company founder Lou Conte began in 1974.
  • Joffrey Ballet (annual budget, $21 million). Wheater expects the company to suffer “millions of dollars” in losses because of the closing of its academy of dance, the stoppage of its community engagement programs and the postponement of its April 22-May 3 production of “Don Quixote.”
  • Natya Dance Theatre (annual budget $650,000). The company, which champions classical Indian dance, has been forced to cancel performances set for March, April and May. It hopes it won’t have to nix its annual summer dance camp, which earns the company $130,000, in late July.
  • Red Clay Dance Co. (annual budget $311,000). The company has had to eliminate its spring program, “Visions and Voices,” and its annual fundraiser, which annually nets as much as $10,000. If it cannot restart its programs by the end of June, it expects to take a $70,000 hit.

With all these cutbacks, dancers are hurt the most. Deeply Rooted, for example, has had to furlough its dozen dancers and is trying to find a way to give them at least some partial remuneration. Joffrey is keeping its 46 dancers on salary through April 3, then hopes to shift the remaining three to four weeks of their 40-week contract to the summer.

Red Clay Dance Co. was forced to cancel it spring program, including a presentation of “Incarnation 1.” Pictured in the dance are Marceia L. Scruggs and Chaniece Holmes.
Red Clay Dance Co. was forced to cancel it spring program, including a presentation of “Incarnation 1.” Pictured in the dance are Marceia L. Scruggs and Chaniece Holmes.
Kristie Kahns

To get through this tough time, dance companies are falling back on cash reserves and slashing expenses. Ensemble Español is considering a GoFundMe campaign, and Red Clay plans to seek emergency help through on-line and texting fundraising platforms it already has.

At the same time, organizations are looking to their long-time supporters for supplemental assistance. Joffrey’s canceled spring fundraiser, Center Stage, has turned into what Wheater calls an “un-gala,” because many attendees are still giving the amounts they committed to the event.

Besides turning to the internet as a way to simply stay in touch with their audiences, some companies, such as the Natya Dance Theatre, are using Zoom and other on-line platforms as a way to keep classes going and maintain some revenue. But artistic director Hema Rajagopalan concedes it has been tough for many reasons, including students not having viable spaces to move at home.

Irma Suarez Ruiz (left) and Jorge Perez in performance with Ensemble Espanol Spanish Dance Theater.
Irma Suarez Ruiz (left) and Jorge Perez in performance with Ensemble Espanol Spanish Dance Theater.
Dean Paul

Despite all these challenges, company leaders are trying to stay as positive as possible. Perez is already looking ahead to Ensemble Español’s upcoming 45th anniversary.

“We’ve got to continue to do that,” Perez said. “Move forward. Think ahead. I know this is a setback. It is a new normal that we’ve been hit with, but I think it is so important to keep the art form going.”

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.