A GoPride Interview

Danny Kopelson

Danny Kopelson: Keith and I started doing this as a labor of love. We have both gotten all that love back and more.

Wed. August 3, 2011  by Michael J. Roberts

Keith and I started doing this as a labor of love. We have both gotten all that love back and more.
Danny Kopelson

Michael J. Roberts discusses the history of Dance For Life with it's co-founder

As Dance For Life celebrates its 20th Anniversary this year, I sat down with co-founder Danny Kopelson who discusses the history of this amazing event, the new documentary airing on WTTW and Comcast On Demand and the impact Dance For Life has had on dancers coping with HIV/AIDS. This year Dance For Life will be held on August 20 at the Auditorium Theatre at Roosevelt University, 50 E. Congress Parkway, which is the largest venue yet for this amazing organization. Tickets are available by going to www.danceforlifechicago.com.

MR: Michael J. Roberts/ShowBizQ) For those that don't know, what is Dance For Life?

DK: (Danny Kopelson) Well, the mission for Dance For Life is simple; It is to promote dance in Chicago while raising money for HIV/AIDS. It began as a very simple idea from Keith Elliott just over 20 years ago and I think we have certainly accomplished our mission.

MR: How many different dance companies and organizations have been involved since Dance For Life's inception?

DK: I believe we have had over 24 different dance companies and benefited over 28 HIV/AIDS service organizations and raised over 4 million dollars.

MR: How did you become involved with Dance For Life?

DK: At the time, Keith Elliot was with the Chicago Dance Theatre, which is no longer in existence, who called me through a friend of his while I was at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago handling their public relations and events. Keith pitched me the idea of having these different dance companies perform. I thought it was a great idea because it was so different and nobody else could do it, and it had never been done before. It wasn't conceived as a gala and it wouldn't necessarily be all gay. We decided to get some straight women involved, namely Harriet Ross who at the time was with Joseph Holmes and subsequently with the Joffrey Ballet, and Gail Kalver, who at the time was the Executive Director of Hubbard Street and is now with River North. So it was just the four of us and it was decided that Dance For Life should not be owned by any one service organization, but it should benefit all different kinds of agencies. It has never been owned by an agency again since the first benefit.

MR: Who are the beneficiaries this year?

DK: This year, because it is the 20th anniversary, we have chosen it to be the AIDS Foundation of Chicago because they have been so generous and because we get along so well with them, as well as the Dance For Life Fund.

MR: What is the ‘Dance For Life Fund‘?

DK: The Dance For Life Fund came about around the fourth year of Dance For Life. Harriet Ross and a number of various dancers decided to create something on the order of the Actor's Fund because they saw all these dancers dying of AIDS and they needed money to pay their rent, get medicine or simply pay their phone bill. I mean we can only do so much to help but we set up this fund with easy to access money for dancers with AIDS for emergency assistance. It subsequently grew to anyone in the dance community, including office workers, staff, etc. who has HIV/AIDS who needs this money. Now it has grown so much that the money is available to anyone in the dance community who deals with any life threatening illness at all. The fund is really a way for dancers to take care of themselves.

MR: Where was the first Dance For Life?

DK: It was at the Organic Theatre, which is no more. It was 400 seats. We didn't sell out the advance for the first one, but that evening, there were lines around the block to get in. Then we moved to the Athenaeum, which was 900 seats and quickly sold out. Then the next year we moved to the Skyline Stage at Navy Pier, which was 1500 seats and we always sold out. We have always been conservative with Dance For Life. We thought about having two performances, we thought about all kinds of stuff, but in the end we decided to just keep selling out the one performance and getting more sponsors. This year obviously we are going bigger being at the Auditorium Theatre and we selling out of most of our most expensive tickets.

MR: What is the process of getting the different dance companies to perform at Dance For Life?

DK: We have four permanent companies, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, River North Dance Company, Joffrey Ballet and Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago. Because this year is such a special year, we are having two World Premiers, one by Randy Duncan and the other by Harrison McEldowney.

MR: What can we expect to see in the Dance For Life: The Documentary?

DK: I'm so excited for this. Basically it is last years concert interjected with testimonials. It is really beautiful. We didn't want to do a documentary that was just ego-driven so we had the same mission for the documentary that we had for Dance For Life itself. There are also some great interviews with the dancers from different companies who get to work with other dance companies through the world premiers. Some found it intimidating but exhilarating.

MR: Who directed Dance For Life: The Documentary?

DK: Scott Silberstein of HMS Media. He has been filming Dance For Life for the last seventeen or eighteen years. He has filmed so many dance documentaries and shows and is brilliant at it. The documentary really gives you a flavor of what Dance For Life is about, that being the devastation of AIDS and how the dance community was impacted then responded.

MR: How did they go about filming Dance For Life: The Documentary?

DK: HMS Media had about four cameras filming Dance For Life last year. Preceding that, Scott went to a lot of the rehearsals of the dance companies and talked with the artistic directors. They were specifically tracking Harrison's finale more than anything which was about AIDS and was just amazing. Subsequently they started filming a lot of the testimonials with myself, Keith, Gail and a lot of other people and dancers who have benefited from the fund. It is quite moving.

MR: What makes Dance For Life so successful year after year when so many other events seem to be struggling?

DK: Dance For Life is so unique and has never varied from our mission. Nowhere else can you see Hubbard Street, River North, the Joffrey and Giordano's perform together as well as two world premiers by not only Chicago's but the world's top choreographers. This year we have adjudicated another dance company, Ron de Jesus, who was a former Chicago dancer who now has his own company. Dance For Life gives him his own platform for his company that they would not otherwise have. Dance For Life has the ability to give all these dance companies exposure and that sells tickets for their own season. That is the other thing, Chicago has really become a destination for dance, just as much if not more than New York or Las Vegas. Dance For Life brings these incredible world premiers to life. Randy Duncan pairs a Joffrey Ballet dancer with a River North dancer, and it is amazing to watch and unique to Dance For Life.

MR: What has changed the most in the HIV/AIDS battle and what hasn't changed in the last 20 years?

DK: What has changed the most certainly is treatment. We have gone with not everyone having HIV/AIDS dying. Instead most now are living because of the access to different treatments and medications. The fact that most people who will access care and adhere to therapy will probably live a normal life span….probably. What hasn't changed is that there is still a tremendous stigma attached with having it. The other thing is that prevention has not been successful at all. Just as many people now are contracting HIV as ever before. Young and old.

MR: How has fundraising changed in the last 20 years?

DK: Well it has changed tremendously and the past few years for various organizations have been quite difficult. The economy certainly hasn't helped anyone. But with Dance For Life, we have never raised more money then we have this year. The documentary was completely underwritten in a week or two. We have had the most sponsors we have every had this year, partly because it is our 20th year but a lot has to with that we always have our ducks in a row and we do what we do pretty well. However, we never take anything for granted. What will next year bring, who knows?

MR: What has kept you involved with Dance For Life for the last 20 years?

DK: Keith and I started doing this as a labor of love. We have both gotten all that love back and more. Fans of Dance For Life should also check out our Facebook page where they can see some of the dancer's testimonials and witness first hand the impact Dance For Life has had in people's life. That is what keeps me involved.

MR: Thank you for spending time with me Danny and for all you have done for our community.

DK: Thank you, Michael.

Dance for Life: The Documentary will air on Thursday, Aug. 11 at 10 p.m. on WTTW 11. The documentary will be rebroadcast on WTTW 11 on Saturday, Aug. 13 at 4 a.m., and on WTTW Prime on Friday, Aug. 12 at 4 p.m. In addition, the film will be available On Demand to Comcast subscribers through the end of August.

For more information on the August 20 gala and to purchase tickets to Dance For Life please visit www.danceforlifechicago.com

Interviewed by Michael J. Roberts. Michael J. Roberts is theatre editor for the ChicagoPride.com covering Chicago's diverse arts and entertainment scene.