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Dance for Life continues to celebrate life, honoring those who have passed
by Aaron Hunt

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In the darkest days of the 1980s, Chicago's dance community was gamely pirouetting through a Giselle-mist insufficiently shrouding the HIV/AIDS tragedy, dancers involuntarily reaching for partners who could never lift them again. There was no ignoring the unrestful spirits brushing past in the corridors, no shutting out dreams of dances that would never spring from soul-to-stage. The dust of the fallen co-mingled with the rosin glimmering on every dance floor.

But as a tide of protest against a studied, willful governmental ignorance washed over the pointed toes of artists, Chicago's dance community clasped hands and voted with their bodies. With a goal of raising money for for HIV/AIDS education and care for those struggling to pay for treatment, dancers Keith Elliott, Harriet Ross and Todd Kiech began the conversation that would become Dance For Life.

This year's Dance for Life ( DFL ) is Aug. 18, beginning with a 5 p.m. gala at Chicago's Hilton, and continuing with a 7:30 p.m. performance at the Auditorium Theatre. In addition to being a fund-raiser, the annual event is a showcase of artists who are trained not to be at contest with each other, but rather to fight their own bodies, making them better today than the story the mirror told them yesterday.

Going rogue

Keith Elliott and Harriet Ross were both with Joseph Holmes Dance Theatre when they launched Dance for Life in 1992—roughly seven years after their company's namesake and founder died of AIDS-related causes. They were joined by Todd Kiech, then something of a "rogue ballerina," and a dancer/choreographer known for innovative works that defied tidy categorization. Their efforts yielded the first DFL in 1992, when AIDS was seen as a death sentence and resources for the afflicted were few. The mainstream press was treating the pandemic as a joke. Under Ronald Reagan, the White House never so much as acknowledged the plague's existence.

Over the past 26 years, DFL has raised more than $5.5 million, partnering with companies clouding Giordano Dance Chicago, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, and the Joffrey Ballet. The annual concert is now one of the city's most glittering social events, replete with star-studded, pre-show gala.

This year's DFL features artists from Giordano Dance Chicago, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, the Joffrey Ballet, Hanna Brictson and Dancers, Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre, Chicago Dance Crash and Nomi Dance Company as well as a finale by internationally lauded acclaimed choreographer Randy Duncan. Beneficiaries are the Dancers' Fund and the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.

Begin again: Mothers, sons and rebirth

Each year, newer companies apply to spice the DFL punch with their kinetic storytelling and picture-painting. This year, Nomi Dance Chicago earned a coveted first-time slot. Nomi's style is eclectic and accessible, their company ethic firmly collaborative. That aesthetic explains much about how their DFL piece "Begin Again" ( by Joshua Blake Carter ) came to the evening's program.

"[Carter] reached out to me in 2014; he was setting out as a young choreographer," Nomi's artistic director Laura Kariotis said. "I had heard good things about him, great stuff about his classwork and certainly [I] had seen him perform and loved his beauty onstage. He sent me video of a couple of pieces of his work and I said, 'Yes, let's do it!" There was an instant rapport with him and the company and the two of us and I thought, 'this doesn't always happen.' There was an incredibly positive energy."

For Carter, "Begin Again" was deeply personal.

"[M]y parents were getting a divorce after 33 years of marriage and my mom was on this new path, this new, renewed life for her," Carter said. "In the midst of the piece I turned off the music and I said to the dancers, 'We're creating a piece about my mom.' I think we've created a piece about her journey and a women's journey, the journey of my mom working hard and still coming home and cooking every night.

"I remember being a kid and my parents separating and then getting back together. I saw this struggle she went through my entire life, and then I saw a moving picture of a woman who had taken her life back," Carter said. "For me it was really a personal statement of love for my mother, but also a reflection on women and women's rights in our country."

The 27-minute piece is "grueling and challenging but perfect," said Kariotis. "It [is] a great celebration of the company and of women, and which is just so �ppropos of what's going on in today's culture."

Welcome to the jumble

This year's DFL also includes Duncan's "Adroit." Duncan was onboard with DFL from the start, taking leadership of Joseph Holmes Dance after Holmes died in 1986. His work with DFL made his see another opportunity for Chicago's dancers.

"I thought to myself, wow, it would really be something if we had a dancer from each of those companies get together and do a creative piece as the [DFL] finale," he said. Organizers loved the idea. Duncan began tapping dancers from each company to help create a spectacular closer for the concert.

"It really pulls those dancers who are used to doing the contemporary modern or classical ballet to a different sort of style," Duncan said. "It's spell-binding to watch them cheering each other on. Even though they didn't know each other before, it's become this family atmosphere. It's infectious."

As we tiptoe through a time when HIV/AIDS is not necessarily a death sentence, Dance For Life funds are being donated to other areas of need. There s no shortage of them: This Is a community where any injury can put one of its family on the sidelines with no income and overwhelming emotional stress. Still, DFL remembers its roots. Even as the Duncan and Carter pieces celebrate rather than grieve, today's DFL dancemakers move through a singular jumble of feelings, a fingertip's breath away from those missing and mourned.

For more on Dance for Life, visit

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