Tap of the World/ Rent is Due/ Borders Hassle | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

Tap of the World/ Rent is Due/ Borders Hassle 

Chicago Human Rhythm Project's Lane Alexander: "Tap is a hot ticket."

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Tap of the World

Lane Alexander, producer of the seventh annual Chicago Human Rhythm Project, is the city's most ambitious promoter of tap. This year's event, which runs July 8 through 20, nearly doubles the number of seminars and classes offered last year, while the festival's move to the Athenaeum Theatre has tripled the number of available seats. The festival budget has also ballooned from $137,000 to $225,000.

Alexander is confident he can pull off a larger festival because "Rhythm tap is a hot ticket these days." Both Riverdance and step-dancing superstar Michael Flatley's Lord of the Dance have sold out in Chicago; Tap Dogs and a return engagement of Stomp have also come through town. On Broadway the successful black musical Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk has drawn even more attention to tap dancing.

Last year Alexander's project had to compete with the Chicago on Tap Festival. Presented jointly by the Old Town School of Folk Music and the Dance Center of Columbia College, Chicago on Tap was the second biennial event presented by the two organizations, and sources at both places say no decision has been made yet regarding another edition in 1998. The last Chicago on Tap broadened its artist roster to include other types of percussive dance, which may have contributed to its deficit of about $10,000. "The broader scope of the festival made it more difficult to market because it was harder for people to grasp what the festival was about," says Julie Simpson, the Dance Center's executive director. Old Town's Jim Hirsch doubts there would be any red ink if the festival were happening this summer: "It would have been an entirely different story if we had come in after Riverdance."

Their loss may be Alexander's gain. His series of bold print ads, featuring tappers in high-stepping motion, leaves little question about the nature of the Human Rhythm Project. Alexander's advertising budget is about $32,000, nearly three times what he spent last year. Of the 11,000 tickets available for the Athenaeum shows, Alexander needs to sell about 7,500 to meet his projections. He sold 3,200 tickets for last year's event at the much smaller Harold Washington Library Auditorium, actually selling out six of eight scheduled performances.

The seminars and master classes have always been one of the most popular components of the festival, and this year Alexander has added a new master class featuring Radio City Rockette Cheryl Hebert, who will train students in the precision tap style that has made the Rockettes famous worldwide. Alexander says he wasn't sure how tap students would respond, but the class quickly sold out. "We are really trying to promote respect for a diverse aesthetic in tap," he says.

Now Alexander is plotting a global network of dance festivals based on his local prototype. "Our plan," he explains, "is to set up tap festivals that will invest in and spotlight local tap artists in each city." He'll launch a Minneapolis festival in December 1997 and an Atlanta festival in January 1998. Festivals in San Antonio and Stuttgart, Germany, are on the drawing board. Tap is especially popular in Germany, says Alexander, because a large number of black tappers who emigrated there in the 1950s helped develop the form. Alexander hopes he can deepen the public's appreciation of tap by nurturing the art form: "Our goal is to use the festivals to develop a grassroots tap culture in every city that we go into."

Rent Is Due

Based on the reactions of focus groups earlier this year, the marketing team for the national tour of the Broadway musical Rent, which will open here in early November, has decided that touting the show's awards will draw crowds. Ads in local publications prominently note the show's Tony Award for best musical and its Pulitzer Prize for drama. So far, the strategy has produced good if not phenomenal box-office results. As of last week, advance ticket sales had climbed to $2.6 million.

On the first day that single tickets were made available to the general public, sales totaled $647,000, about a third less than first-day sales of $943,671 in Minneapolis, where the national tour is now playing. Rent spokesperson Laura Matalon says the $647,000 figure may be misleading because promotions with American Express and radio station WLIT generated an additional $573,000 and $136,000 in sales, respectively, before the public even got a crack at tickets. Says Matalon, "If you add in the special promotion sales, the first-day totals are about the same in both markets." Of course the Chicago metropolitan area is larger, but in Chicago the top ticket price is $67.50, compared to only $60 in Minneapolis. Matalon says the public response might be slower in Chicago because of the longer lead time before the show opens; in Minneapolis tickets for an early June opening didn't go on sale until March.

Borders Hassle

Earlier this month staffers at Borders Books & Music were shocked to learn of the abrupt departure of Loreen Maxfield, the chain's powerful regional manager, who had 11 Chicago-area stores under her command. Borders employees claim they had no indication Maxfield was preparing to leave the company until she was seen cleaning out her desk. A company spokesperson refused to comment on the reasons for Maxfield's departure but indicated that applications for the position were being accepted. Maxfield could not be reached for comment. One source says Maxfield had staunchly opposed the employee unionizing drive at the Borders Lincoln Park store, where her office was located, but the source doesn't know if the store's union problems were connected to her leaving. Maxfield had risen to prominence partly because of her successful opening and management of Borders' large Michigan Avenue outpost. Meanwhile, efforts to unionize employees at Borders stores across the country have met with mixed success. Staffers recently voted in the union at the chain's lower Manhattan store, but the union was voted down at a Seattle store. Prolonged union contract negotiations at the Lincoln Park Borders have stalled over pay.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Lane Alexander photo by Randy Tunnell.

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