BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
For dancers and musicians from Chicago and around the world seeking a venue to showcase their performances, the Joan W. and Irving B. Harris Theater has emerged as Chicago’s greatest gift. Built in 2003 with 1500 seats, it was the first multi-use performance venue built in Chicago since 1929.
Alexandra Nichols, one of Chicago’s most experienced community leaders and Chairman of the Board of the Harris, makes sure that for performers and audiences that gift keeps on giving.
“I remember in 2003, when the theater was still a dream unfulfilled, looking over the edge at a hole of dirt in Millennium Park and dreaming of the beautiful performance hall that would be there one day. I joined the board in 2000 while I was working on my MBA at Kellogg and promised to get more involved when I graduated. I have been on the board since then, chairing the first gala with Caryn Harris when the New York City Ballet performed.
“Way back in the 1990s, it was determined by the Chicago Community Trust and others what Chicago really needed was a venue for small or midsized artistic groups that didn’t have their own performance venue or didn’t perform enough throughout the year to afford their own venue. The Harris began with 12 local performance groups, and now its has 35.
“Whether it is the Paris Opera Ballet, which began in the Court of Louis XIV, or the Peking Acrobats, new groups from all over the world are part of our ‘Harris Theater Presents.’ In the United States, the Hamburg Ballet chooses only to perform at the Harris.
“Because of the reputation that the Harris has developed, we are now one of three venues that international companies choose for their performances, and they frequently come to the Harris first. The others are the Kennedy Center and Lincoln Center.”
Alexandra’s love of dance has a strong Lincoln Center connection.
“When I was working on my masters degree at Columbia, I lived close to Lincoln Center. The New York City Ballet prima ballerina Patricia McBride lived just down the hall. I would often find two ballet tickets under the door, so I would see a lot of her performances. I loved watching the Joffrey, as well, when they performed at the New York City Center.”
Alexandra’s commitment to dance, music, and theater found full expression when she and her husband, John Nichols, moved to Chicago. She has had a long-term commitment to The Music Institute of Chicago, where she served as Board Chair, and Writers Theatre in Glencoe.
She has supported the talented actor Michael Halberstam since 1988 in making his dream of building a theater a reality. She has served the theater since its founding in 1992 in many capacities including, most recently, on the building committee, which led to the construction of the state-of-the-art Jeanne Gang theater center.
“The committee worked for five years, and we now have two gorgeous theaters, meeting a tremendous need because there were always long waiting lists for each performance. The capacity of the big theater has expanded by 100, and we now have a terrific black box theater, as well.”
Her own career began as a journalist at Fortune magazine. Although Alexandra no longer writes for magazines, her job as Chairman of the Harris requires frequent writing of proposals, letters, and other efforts to support the theater.
“John and I are very involved with the old Sears Tower in North Lawndale, once the tallest building in the city. There is rental space on the top floor with the most beautiful 360- degree view of the city.
“The North Lawndale Employment Center is located there, as well as Jeff McCarter’s Free Spirit Media and the School of the Art Institute, which was seeking a community outpost. Power House High School, the Charter School that we helped found in an old power plant, is right across the street.”
With performances balanced equally between music and dance, the Harris Theater represents surely the best theater collaboration in the country. The Harris supports its resident theater companies with subsidized rent and other services, brings in some of the finest international companies through its “Harris Theater Presents,” and offers the theater to other outside groups. It sponsors events for young professionals and runs a popular family series. Working with social service agencies and other groups, the theater gives out over 7000 tickets to performances.
On February 24, Choreographers in Residence, Brian Brooks will perform a series of new solos and duets in “Some of a Thousand Words” with Wendy Whelan, past principal dancer with the New York Ballet.
Brooklyn Rider, hailed by String Magazine as “the future of Chamber Music” will accompany the dancers.
The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presents the world premiere of “Love Sonnets” on March 8, which was co-commissioned by the Harris and the Chamber Music Society. On March 29, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center returns for a program of music from Paris’s Baroque era.
Jessica Lang Dance will end the season May 3 with “The Wanderer,” a contemporary story ballet with dazzling sets and the music of Franz Schubert.
For more information about the Harris Theater and its schedule of resident companies and international guest performances, visit: harristheaterchicago.org.