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Dance for Life: Annual benefit draws record attendance
by Lauren Warnecke

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More than 2,000 people ( a record number ) flooded the Auditorium Theatre at Roosevelt University Aug. 15 for the 24th annual Dance for Life Chicago, presented by Chicago Dancers United. The yearly concert and gala event invites some of Chicago's best and brightest dance companies to share the stage in order to raise money and awareness for HIV/AIDS.

While much of Dance for Life ( DFL ) has evolved and changed over its 24-year tenure, the heart of DFL's mission remains the same. In 1992, Keith Elliott and Todd Kiech held the first Dance for Life as a response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, with a particular lens on how AIDS was impacting the dance community. Throughout its history, money raised by the event supports two vital organizations: the AIDS Foundation of Chicago and The Dancers' Fund, a service organization providing emergency financial support to dancers facing chronic illness or health crises. In response to changing and evolving needs of Chicago's dance community, Chicago Dancers United is now an umbrella organization aimed at serving a wider scope of needs.

The fact remains, however, that HIV/AIDS has not gone away, and Dance for Life will continue to be a primary focus of Chicago Dancers United. Members and friends of the dance community gathered for a cocktail hour with all the glitz and glam that the Hilton Grand Ballroom had to offer before parading together to the Auditorium Theatre for a celebratory dance concert. In passing, Executive Director Anthony Guerrero confirmed that it was DFL's best year yet—thanks to a beefier marketing campaign and prioritized low-cost concert tickets this year. Expensive gala events are intended for aggressive fundraising, and while the cocktail hour still follows this format, Guerrero wanted the concert to be for everyone. For the first time ever, DFL patrons could get a $15 seat to see seven world-class dance companies on the same stage.

At such a special concert, it is difficult to pull out the notable moments. Giordano Dance Chicago, River North Dance Chicago, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and the Chicago Human Rhythm Project brought their best, show-stopping works from last seasonp, and C5 presented a fun world premiere with a nod to Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand. The Joffrey Ballet and Same Planet Different World took a different approach, restoring older, but perhaps more meaningful, pieces for the program. Joffrey opened the program with the joyful romp "Viva Vivaldi," choreographed by co-founder Gerald Arpino. Arpino, apparently, took no prisoners when he created the work in 1965, but the incredibly difficult work showed well as a happy opening number.

Same Planet Different World ( SPDW ) brought back Shapiro & Smith's stunning "To Have and To Hold" specifically for this, the company's second appearance in Dance for Life. A favorite work of Artistic Director Joanna Rosenthal, the late Eric Eatherly—an SPDW alum and esteemed publicist who died recently—wrote of To Have and To Hold's significance: "…a gorgeous work where the dancers used three long benches to create the simplest yet most profound images. The work's transcendent themes of love, death, loss, and the emphemerality of life were never so profound in a work of dance." ( Source: The Silvermanifesto, Mar. 14, 2011 )

Randy Duncan's crowd-pleasing closer, "Stand By Me," was performed by an eclectic group of dancers selected by audition earlier in the summer. The finale was dedicated to the memory of Paul Christiano, a gifted dancer and choreographer who died earlier this month.

In a highly emotional evening, the mood remained light and positive, in large part due to hilarious emcees Joey Bland and Tim Mason of The Second City, and to the antics of HMS Media, who created a laugh-out-loud video of Joey and Tim embarking on a mission to learn all they could about Chicago dance. The moral of the story—made blatantly clear throughout the evening—was the sense of family and strong support members of Chicago's dance community has for one another. Dance for Life is a strong reminder of this, and of the impact that the arts and arts organizations can and do make in others' lives.

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