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Has Chicago Become a World Class City of Dance? The Hamburg Ballet Opens Its U.S. Tour in Chicago

02/01/2013 10:12 am ET | Updated Apr 03, 2013

They say that if something happens once, it is the exception. If something happens twice, it is the rule. More than just the city of architecture and blues, Chicago, which now has a string of artistic "firsts" under its belt: the most number of regional Tony awards, opening of the Lichtenstein exhibit before any other world city last year and the noted best restaurant in the United States, Alinea, is also becoming a major player on the world stage of dance.

Last year, the Paris Opera Ballet, thought to be the oldest and one of the most revered dance companies in the world, opened its U.S. tour after a 15-year hiatus in Chicago before heading to New York. This Friday and Saturday, February 1st and 2nd, the Hamburg Ballet will open its U.S. tour at Chicago's Harris Theater for Music and Dance before heading to California. It is the first time in over five years that the company will perform in the U.S and it will bypass the East Coast all together.

The Hamburg Ballet will perform "Nijinsky," the dark and dramatic creation of accomplished Milwaukee-born ballet dancer, director and choreographer John Neumeier, who has led the Hamburg Ballet for the past 40 years. The ballet is based on the life and legend of one of the most exceptional dancers and artists of our century -- Vaslav Nijinsky.

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Courtesy: Hamburg Ballet

So why did the Hamburg Ballet decided to kick-off its U.S. tour in Chicago? Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a former ballet dancer himself who continued taking dance classes into his first tour in Washington, D.C. under President Clinton, explains.

L.A. looks to Asia and New York looks to Europe. Chicago is really the most American of American cities; the cultural heartbeat of the U.S. With both the Paris Opera Ballet and the Hamburg Ballet opening their tours here, it is recognition that Chicago is a must-see city for dance and it is the emergence of Chicago as the dance capital of the United States.

Mayor Emanuel, noted by Chicagoans as the mayor who really understands culture as an economic engine for the growth of the city, went on to explain that Chicago also has an "expansive and enthusiastic audience" to support dance. This is probably best exampled by the thousands and thousands that come out every year to support the largest free dance festival in North America, the Chicago Dancing Festival.

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The Hamburg Ballet Performing "Nijinksy", Photo Credit: Holger Badekow

Michael Tiknis, President and Managing Director for the Harris Theater, said this about the Hamburg Ballet coming to Chicago.

The Harris Theater has its proverbial ear to the ground, watching the things that are happening around the world and bringing them to Chicago. It is not so much of a surprise now when a company gets a call from the Harris asking them to come to Chicago. We look at which companies have not been to the U.S. in a while and which companies are doing interesting work. We reached out to the Hamburg Ballet because the Paris Opera Ballet was a tough act to follow.

Most people know that the idea of Chicago as the 'second city' is long gone. The creation of Millennium Park put an end to that. Chicago has come of age. The international community now sees Chicago as a major cultural hub.

As an example of this, Tiknis cited the pioneering live simulcast to over 15,000 of the Paris Opera Ballet last summer in Chicago's Millennium Park, which drew international attention.

It isn't just that Chicago is bringing in international heavy hitters to perform. It also touts many important dance companies of its own, and exports them, too. The Joffrey Ballet, Giordano Dance Chicago, the Hubbard Street Ballet, the River North Dance Company, The Seldoms, The Dance Center of Columbia College and the Chicago Human Rhythm Project (just returning from a Kennedy Center performance in December of 2012) are skimming the top of the over 200 dance companies in the city which help to build a strong audience for dance. Mayor Emanuel studied with Joel Hall Dance Center in his youth and it certainly made a believer out of him.