Nicole Gifford has to speak more loudly than usual. An espresso machine gurgles behind the counter at Letizia’s Natural Bakery in Ukrainian Village. The Harvest Chicago Contemporary Dance Festival cofounder frequented the café during her first foray as a producer, when she was working with Marquez Dance Project artistic director Jennifer Sandoval. “It was kind of halfway, so we would always meet here,” Gifford says when explaining why she chose this spot for our interview. “Now I live two blocks away.”
The 38-year-old takes a sip of her coffee. Does caffeine play a big role in a producer’s life? HCCDF cofounder Melissa Mallinson, 33, answers for both of them: “It’s starting to, yes.” At HCCDF, which takes place Friday 5 through Sunday 7 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 28 local and national contemporary-dance artists perform over one weekend.
Gifford and Mallinson, who met while performing nearly ten years ago, have quietly established one of the city’s more rousing dance fests, cramming an ambitious number into a short time frame. While the prime-time Chicago Dancing Festival draws the big names, HCCDF aims for groups that typically fly under the radar: Chicago Dance Crash, Same Planet Different World Dance Theatre and Elements Contemporary Ballet, to name a few. Now in its third year, the annual event has attracted growing interest: In 2010, it drew 33 applicants; this year, it took in 125. Managing so many artists, Gifford says, can be “like planning a wedding,” the big payoff coming at the end.
The humble-seeming Gifford and Mallinson don’t act like producers, or promoters. Throughout our conversation, the duo consistently refer to accepted applicants as “practicing artists,” as though to emphasize the degree of dedication. “Some are able to make a living out of the dance community through teaching and administrative jobs and other projects,” Mallinson says of typical HCCDF artists. “Others don’t, but others are still working, creating choreographers who put their heart and soul into their work and have grown over time. They might not be able to draw an audience to fill the Harris Theater, but still need venues to share their work.”
These practicing artists might also be called “working artists,” which Gifford, a ballroom instructor by day, and Mallinson, who works in the education department of the Old Town School of Folk Music, understand all too well. A profession of short-lived performance opportunities more often incurs expense than it provides income.
While a $25 application fee covers technical necessities like lighting and a tech crew, Gifford and Mallinson pay the dancers based on money earned from $25 general-ticket sales. More recently, the pair has fielded inquiries from artists in Mexico, Sweden and France—all of them willing to pay their way just to perform in the fest. For Gifford and Mallinson, it’s a reminder of the sacrifices artists make for their craft.
“It costs a lot of money. It can really just break them,” Gifford says of the expenses many dance artists face. “They spend money on rehearsal, they spend money to pay their dancers, they spend money to create costumes, they research music. You don’t do it if you don’t love it.”