Note: The following is an anonymous response to a recent announcement by Chicago’s Harris Theater for Music and Dance granting $600,000 over the course of three years to choreographer Brian Brooks as the theater’s first ever choreographer in residence. It is published here with permission from the author.
Brian Brooks of the Brian Brooks Moving Company is about to get paid. The Harris Theater in Millennium Park announced last week that the New York-based choreographer is the first recipient of its newly established choreographer-in-residence program, a three-year venture with a $600,000 budget, half of which is destined for Brooks’s bank account.
Someone cue the champagne corks. Over the next three years, Brooks will create new works for companies like Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Miami City Ballet, and his own Brian Brooks Moving Company. Premieres for other companies are TBD. Brooks will be compensated $100,000 annually, according to the New York Times, and the rest will be used to fund commissioning and production costs. Some performances will premiere in Chicago, others won’t. All of which is to say that the Harris has come up with a way to spend more than half a million dollars for a residency that, in effect, has little benefit for the city of Chicago or the artists who live here.
The 12-year-old theater has long promoted itself as a venue for Chicago’s emerging and midsize artists and companies, yet it stands to reason how Brooks’s gargantuan salary does anything besides generate a few headlines and keep the city’s cultural elite from feeling left out of the bigger picture. Part of it is about relevancy. In the same article from the Times, Michael Cooper notes that the residency was designed, in part, to help the Harris extend its reach beyond Chicago.
Relevancy and reach isn’t a bad thing. Harder to justify is Brooks’s hefty price tag when the majority of local dance makers would have done just as well at half the retail value. Take Carrie Hanson of The Seldoms, or Julia Rhodes of Lucky Plush Productions, or independent choreographer Robyn Mineko Williams, for example, all of whom are established, well-respected, visionary minds. And that’s a short list. Imagine what they could have done with a six-figure cash injection.
But none of them have the sexy credentials of Brooks, the recipient of a 2013 Guggenheim Fellowship, a NY City Center Fellowship, the Jerome Robbins New Essential Works grant, and the Joyce Theater’s Artist Residency. (He also made a splash recently as a collaborator/performer in former New York City Ballet Principal Dancer Wendy Whelan’s offshoot project Restless Creature.) And none of them come from the Big Apple, the ostensible Mecca of dance, which, for all its wonderful charms, hardly is representative of the whole.
The Harris has done well over the past decade to establish relationships with many of Chicago’s brightest cultural institutions. Its mission since 2003, according to its website, is “to partner with an array of Chicago’s music and dance performing arts organizations to help them build the resources and infrastructure necessary to achieve artistic growth and long-term organizational sustainability.” As much good as the theater has done over the years, it’s hard to ignore the contradictions. With the exception of Hubbard Street, which already boasts a substantial international repertoire and a solid foundation of funding, the locals have, as is often the case, been left to fend for themselves.
The issue isn’t whether Brooks is qualified, but how his appointment does much to promote Chicago or the artists who live here. For a theater that purports to be a friend of the city’s burgeoning enterprises, wouldn’t it have made more sense to raise the city’s profile by spreading the wealth to one of its own?