A GoPride Interview

Keith Elliott

Keith Elliott interview with ChicagoPride.com

Sat. August 14, 2010  by Joseph Erbentraut

Keith Elliott
Nearly two decades have passed since Dance For Life first took wind in 1992, bringing together some of Chicago's most acclaimed professional dance companies in a one-evening event to help individuals impacted by HIV/AIDS.

And while a lot has changed in that time, including two Bushes passing through from the White House, the mission still remains largely the same for the annual event: Utilizing the beauty and strength of dance to raise awareness and funds to continue the battle against the epidemic that ravaged the gay community, taking many talented artists with it.

Dance For Life has since grown into the largest of its kind in the Midwest, raising nearly $4 million in benefit shows featuring companies including the Joffrey Ballet, the River North Chicago Dance Company and the Hubbard Street Dance Company.

On the brink of the latest edition of Dance For Life, to be held Saturday, Aug. 21, at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, ChicagoPride.com spoke with Chicago Gay & Lesbian Hall of Fame honoree, Chicago Magazine's 2006 Chicagoan of the Year and event creator Keith Elliott to get a closer look at the incredible event.

JE: (Joe Erbentraut) This is the 19th year of Dance For Life. Is it surreal to you to see how successful the event has become since it first began?

KE: (Keith Elliott) Who knew? From the first show back in 1992, not knowing if it would sell out or if anybody would even come to it, we still knew it was a great cause, but we weren't sure people would rally around it. But people embraced the event like nobody's business and we've sold out every year since then.

It's surreal in a sense and you forget in the minutiae of producing the event. It's wild that almost 20 years later, people are still sympathetic to the cause and rallying around Dance For Life as an option to help raise funds. The dancers still come aboard and give it their time, as well as the companies and artistic directors, and it boggles the mind. It shows the strength of Chicago's dance community.

JE: How has the event changed and evolved since Dance For Life began?

KE: From its humble beginnings, it felt very grassroots in the way that we put it together. It was the old age of "I have a barn and some lights, so let's put on a show." We still attach ourselves to that kind of flavor and though it's a professional show and we've grown over the years, we want to keep that homespun approach in place while making it a lot of fun and joyous. We're rallying around a cause that is serious but we want to keep it light and airy.

We've been able to grow ourselves, too. Chicago Dancers United, the governing board of the event, is a separate entity from AIDS Foundation of Chicago, though they've allowed us to utilize their 501(3)(c) status and help us with their office space and to form a funding body. What we've created is the Dance For Life Fund that assists anyone in the professional dancer community with a life-threatening illness.

They've also helped us create the Community Direct Program which allows smaller organizations to sell tickets to the event and get that money directed back to them after the event. Finally, they've helped us fund a school - the Tongabezi Trust School - Livingstone, Zambia, which we provide with funding for AIDS awareness programs, community outreach days and training for teachers, which they were lacking. I visited that school on my own and they were really in dire need of support.

JE: What are some of your favorite aspects of your work directing the event?

KE: One is just getting to know everyone in the community, not only in the dance community, but the AIDS community as well, the people who really want to rally around the cause. You get to know a multitude and many types of people, all of whom want to give and take part in the event. The biggest kick that I get from being a dancer a few years back is walking backstage, seeing the dancers who don't normally hang out because they're from different genres of dance - modern, ballet, jazz - all having fun and cracking up watching the other companies perform. I appreciate the fact that they're all having a great time.

JE: What do you think it is about dance specifically that lends itself to such a "joyous," as you've said, event around which people can rally for the cause of HIV/AIDS funding with this event?

KE: I think dance in itself and by its nature is so physical, which makes it something everyone can really appreciate. It's a lot of work, but to see dancing and experience it doesn't look like a lot of work. It's always entertaining. You eventually walk away from the program asking, "How did they do all that?" It's beautiful. Also, I think everyone can connect on some level with either all the dance companies or at least one of them, because they all have different styles. Ballet is very organized and linear, as opposed to maybe a jazz or modern dance company that is a bit more free form.

JE: This year, I read that Chicago choreographer Harrison McEldowney has created a world premiere piece that will be a part of the show. What does it mean to you to have that included in this year's event?

KE: The finale started back in 1994 as a brainchild from the benefit committee. They wanted to get everyone on stage to bow together at the end of the show, so why not have them do a finale piece? We approached Randy Duncan who came on board and choreographed the finale that year and every year after that up until this year because he will be out of town for the show and couldn't commit the time. Harrison then joined us, who is in his own right very well known for what he's doing in Broadway, Off-Broadway and industrial shows. He's putting together a piece that involves up to 30 dancers at a time on the stage and incorporates a new flying apparatus as well. I'll get a preview of what that will look like next week and I'm very excited.

JE: Have your fundraising efforts or ticket sales been effected at all by our still sluggish economic conditions?

KE: The event is selling well. Last year, our committee made a decision that we need to change the culture and nature of giving. We can't ride on this "Oh, it's really bad right now" idea. We just need to move forward and keep the integrity of the event and keep everyone on board with searching for more sponsors. It's been a bit difficult for us this year, but we had one of our most successful individual giving programs, which is an early buy-in for seed money, which helped to balance out being short on sponsorship.

JE: What is your key selling point for the event that you've found to be successful in describing it to people, ticket buyers and sponsors alike?

KE: The one thing we always emphasize is that this is sampling of some of the top dance companies here in Chicago all on one night on one stage. It's a great sampling of what Chicago has to offer in terms of professional dance.

JE: And, of course, the cause is still an important one, but I really like how you've managed to turn it into a real positive mood. Why do you think that also seems to resonate with people?

KE: I think the audience buys into it because it's what they see on the stage. All these dance companies have been so hit by this, especially back in the late '80s and early '90s. And while it seems to be leveling out just slightly, people are learning how to manage and remain hopeful and we're not losing as many artists, the companies still realize this is something real and tangible that needs to be addressed.

Visit www.danceforlifechicago.com for tickets or more information on Dance For Life 2010, to be held Saturday, Aug. 21 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph Dr. The event begins with a gala reception at 5 p.m., preceding the show's 7:30 p.m. curtain time.

Interviewed by Joseph Erbentraut