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Contemporary dance has a vibrant home at Dance Center of Columbia College

Urban Bush Women at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans, January 2018. | © James Morgan Owens

With high-profile local companies like the Joffrey Ballet and a regular array of big touring troupes at the Auditorium Theatre and Harris Theater dominating the Chicago dance scene, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago getting lost in the shuffle.

But the opposite is true. The small yet spunky presenter will mark its 45th anniversary in 2018-19, an impressive achievement in a rough-and-tumble field that often faces some of the toughest funding challenges of any facet of the arts.

Ellen Chenoweth, the new director for the Dance Center of Columbia College, is photographed on May 31, 2018. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

The Dance Center fills a distinctive role, offering the only series in Chicago and one of only a handful nationwide that is dedicated solely to contemporary dance. Its peers include the Joyce Theater in New York, Dance Place in Washington, D.C., and Velocity Dance Center in Seattle.

In addition to a plethora of up-and-comers, the series has presented such prominent groups as the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Stephen Petronio Company, Cloud Gate Dance Theater of Taiwan and Trisha Brown Dance Company.

“It is one of the most important presenters of contemporary dance in the United States,” said Heather Hartley, executive director of See Chicago Dance. “What it brings to Chicago audiences is exposure to national and international artists that might not otherwise be seen here.”

The Dance Center’s 268-seat theater is nearly twice as large as the biggest space in Links Hall but far smaller than the 3,901-seat Auditorium Theatre. “I feel like we occupy this really wonderful niche in between the big venues and the shoeboxes,” said Ellen Chenoweth, who will take over July 1 as permanent director of its Dance Presenting Series after serving as interim director since September.

In many ways, the Dance Center has thrived by turning what could be seen as negatives into positives. It is tucked, for example, into an art-deco building at 1306 S. Michigan in the South Loop, a location that might seem isolated but one that allows attendees to avoid the traffic congestion and parking challenges elsewhere.

“Odeon,” an original dance work for seven dancers and four musicians, is the second collaboration between sister-and-brother team Ephrat and Ehud Asherie (choreographer and musical director, respectively) of Ephrat Asherie Dance. | Matthew Murphy

While the small size of its theater has certain built-in physical limitations, it also means that attendees can enjoy the performances up close with no seat more than 35 feet from the stage. “It allows the audience to really see the muscle, the expression and all the nuance that’s not always possible to see in the larger houses,” said Hartley, who served as the Dance Center’s marketing director in 1998-2004.

Chenoweth, whose extensive career includes stints as program development consultant for the American Dance Institute and managing director of the Dance Exchange in Takoma Park, Md., is quick to admit that the Dance Center could not survive without the support of Columbia College. The program is part of the Columbia’s dance department, which has nearly 110 majors, and the school provides the physical facilities and covers such expenses as staff salaries and maintenance.

In return, students get up-close exposure to the dance artists who appear on the Dance Center’s series. Performers are required to spend a week at Columbia College, teaching dance classes, meeting with students in other disciplines and sometimes undertaking community outreach.

“It’s another unusual facet,” Chenoweth said. “Often on college campuses, the performing arts center is kind of its own entity. This is the only one where I have seen a performing series embedded within the curriculum so deeply.”

The new director plans to continue the series’ mix of local, national and international companies that are both emerging and established, making sure that all four of the stylistic emphases within the dance department are well represented: ballet, modern, hip-hip and West African.

The Dance Center of Columbia College, May 31, 2018. While the small size of its theater has certain built-in physical limitations, it also means that attendees can enjoy the performances up close with no seat more than 35 feet from the stage. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

The recently announced 2018-19 line-up (which includes some offerings already booked before Chenoweth’s arrival) features eight groups ranging from Ephrat Asherie Dance (Oct. 11-13), which is making its Chicago debut, to Urban Bush Women (Feb. 28-March 2, 2019), a veteran company that has made repeat appearances on the series.

Chenoweth hopes to boost the programming surrounding the performances, including a more active blog and enhanced audience interaction. “My goal is to make the Dance Center a fresh and vital hub, connecting all kinds of dance artists and audience members,” she said.

Unlike the in-fighting she has encountered elsewhere, the new director has found the Chicago dance scene to be quite collegial. “That’s been a welcome surprise,” she said. Shortly after her arrival last year, for example, Tania Castroverde Moskalenko, the Auditorium Theatre’s chief executive officer, invited her to lunch.

“Definitely, we don’t see each other as competition,” Moskalenko said. “We see each other more as partners. It makes us [as a city] really vibrant to have this much dance and all of it thriving. Everybody says that New York is the dance capital of the world, and that is probably true, but I would say that Chicago probably comes in as a close second.”

Season subscriptions to the Dance Center’s series are available now and single tickets go on sale July 1. Visit dance.colum.edu.

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.