Twenty years ago, a 1,400-plus seat venue at the top of Millennium Park opened its doors for the first time, welcoming audiences into a minimalist temple to the arts—stark white vestibule and austere theater that gracefully put all eyes on the performers on stage. Since then, the Harris Theater for Music and Dance has established itself as one of Chicago’s big three—named in the same breath as the Auditorium Theatre and Civic Opera House. The presenter will kick off its emerald anniversary September 9 with an all-day, outdoor festival spread across Millennium Park. Festivities culminate in a three-hour performance in the Pritzker Pavilion of a dozen Chicago-based companies that have found a presenting home at the Harris. We spoke with Lori Dimun, president of the Harris, about the festival and how the theater has shaped—and been shaped by—music and dance performance in Chicago.
I remember the Harris Theater opening… I can’t believe it’s been twenty years already. Let’s talk first about the Harris’ impact on Chicago’s cultural landscape.
It has evolved in twenty years, which I think makes the Harris unique. When I think about the original design concept—which was to be the home of Chicago’s small and mid-sized itinerant music and dance companies—we’re still doing that, but we have also evolved to be a reputable and sought-after presenter. Finding that rhythm and balance of being a home for local companies and also looking to see where we can accentuate what’s happening in the world, we’ve been able to embrace that, while being a complement to what’s happening locally.
Those local companies represented in the Harris Fest program are all in residence at the Harris. Could you talk about these Chicago-based relationships?
The Harris had twelve companies when we opened our doors. All of those companies were in the design meetings with architects and founders, helping inform how the Harris would serve them. Those companies served on a council leading up to the building of the theater and we still have that resident company committee. As life has changed, it’s a space where we share about what’s happening in current trends, where we hold learning labs; it’s a collaborative space, sometimes a commiserating space, especially during the pandemic. Having those companies embedded in day-to-day decision-making is very much part of our mission.
Who are the twelve founding companies?
Let’s see if I can remember them all. Ballet Chicago, Chicago Opera Theater, Chicago Sinfonietta, Dance Center of Columbia College, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Joffrey Ballet, Lyric Opera, National Museum of Mexican Art, Muntu Dance Theatre, Music of the Baroque, Performing Arts Chicago—which is no longer around—and Old Town School of Folk Music.
The very first performance at the Harris Theater was a showcase of those companies. We’ve long been talking about doing a showcase of these companies because they’re all very interested in audience sharing. The idea of doing it in one performance is kind of insane because we have gone beyond twelve companies to have relationships with twenty-eight companies. This is where we had the idea of a Millennium Park takeover.
How does the Harris balance this local focus with presenting national and international artists?
Early on, the idea was for it to be in complement, exploring ideas in music and dance you wouldn’t see at the Auditorium or Civic [Opera House]. We created threads and through lines of watching artists’ careers evolve. For example, New York City Ballet was the first presentation we had on the Harris Theater stage. Wendy Whelan danced in that opening, after that Wendy had retired from the company and contacted us about two projects she did after that, which we presented. We stayed in touch over the years, discussed bringing New York City Ballet back and continuing to talk with Wendy about her own projects. A lot of these relationships have been something that sparked once and we continued to build on to see where their artistic journey is going. We prioritized bringing companies that have never been in Chicago. We’re bringing Black Grace this year, who is a New Zealand company with roots in Samoan and Maori dance blended with contemporary dance. That’s something that hasn’t been experienced in this scale of concert in Chicago.
It’s wonderful to weave this web of artistic engagement. An important thing we do is being an ambassador of Chicago to these artists and vice versa. Often times we do master-classes with our resident companies so there’s an opportunity to build a network of exchange.
Let’s talk about the Millennium Park takeover. It’s a big program and a big day.
Oh, my gosh. It’s a big day and a big program. Some of the most fun and the most terrifying were those initial conversations with resident companies to say, “This is your day to showcase yourself on this massive stage in Millennium Park, what do you dream of doing?” It was just amazing how it came together in the spirit of each company. An important part of this is that these companies collaborate and have been in community with one another for twenty years. So there’s an amazing, epic performance and a bit of a marathon.
Also, many of our companies were interested in doing something experiential: Muntu is doing a workshop on the Great Lawn, Ballet 5:8 and High Concept Labs are doing that too. There will be interactive movement and music by Cloud Gate. It will be exciting for passersby to happen upon it.
The Pritzker Pavilion performance, epic for sure… a three-hour performance.
We have done our best to say yes. Saying, “Yes, this does need to be a fifteen-minute piece because that best showcases your work.” So we’ve been in the spirit of yes in this whole project. Yes to what companies want to showcase, yes to it being free and open to the public and really making it a special day for all of Chicago.
What do you see ahead for the Harris Theater?
“Does anyone have the secret sauce for how we navigate this very difficult time in the arts?” is what we’re all thinking about. Our founding women, who are still very active with the organization, have said wisely that if we weren’t willing to evolve from day one, we wouldn’t have survived. You can’t be a hub for a diverse group of organizations and expect that you won’t evolve. We did a lot of listening to the companies through the pandemic about what they needed. It’s incumbent on us that we represent those companies best. Being twenty there’s a practical aspect of running a building. That we continue keeping this building state of the art, that we’re good stewards of Millennium Park. There’s a lot to do, but I’m grateful to have our local companies as partners in pursuing those goals.
Anything else you’d like to mention?
Arriving at twenty you go into those moments of looking to the past and the future. It’s exciting to look at our current resident companies—there’s so much leadership there, coming through the pandemic. It’s an honor to work with those folks.
“Harris Fest: Music and Dance in Millennium Park,” Saturday, September 9, 10am-9pm. Pritzker Pavilion performance, 6pm. Free.