05/16/2012 01:07 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Solid Future for the Arts: Chicago Academy for the Arts Turns 30

I attended the thirtieth anniversary celebration for the Chicago Academy for the Arts and I was awe-struck by the student performances at the Harris Theatre that preceded last Thursday evening's gala. In an hour-long overview that displayed the many artistic disciplines taught at CAA, the young adults showed us their stuff in dance, music, film and a bit of the visual arts.

2012-05-14-RandyDuncanNatalieRast_photoJenniferGirard2.jpgUnder the captivating and provocative choreography of Randy Duncan, three time recipient of the Ruth Page Award for Outstanding Choreographer of the Year, the dance ensemble soared in creative unison and peaked with individual flare. I didn't just watch this performance, I was elevated by it. The joy that radiated from these kids was palpable and the entire audience was infected. Opera singer and alum, Jessica Oliver, currently working with Opera Theatre of the Rockies, continued the evening by singing with a maturity and depth that I didn't know possible from such a young soprano, and Semi Precious Weapons Rock Star and CAA alum, Justin Tranter -- who did cartwheels in high heels -- commanded the audience to attention and made this middle aged crowd bend, snap and sing to alternative Rock, like only a confident performer, nurtured by years of foundational support and training, could. By the end of his slide-across-the-stage, give-it-everything-you-got, don't-take-middle-aged-complacency-for-an-answer performance, he had the crowd wrapped around his hot pink tie-dye spandex.

This was the real and lasting impression from the evening, most colorfully displayed by Mr. Tranter, but evident with all the performers through their art and in their own words: the Chicago Academy for the Arts builds strong artists by developing their artistic expertise and by creating an environment of empowerment. In wonderful pre-shot and edited student films played intermittently between performances, current and past students spoke of their CAA experience and all said the same thing: in CAA they had a home, a place where they belonged, a place where they were supported for being different, a place where their spirit could thrive and their talent could develop specifically because they were accepted, respected even, for being different, unique, special. In every performance, this nurtured spirit was evident. Even younger kids in the dance ensemble swaggered with a "we got this" 'tude and a "I own this" certainty.

2012-05-14-CAAstudents_photoJenniferGirard2.jpgIn a time when artists have it tough and support for them is shrinking, I am grateful that CAA, designated a National School of Distinction by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, offers a places where our young talent can feel safe, explore their outer-limits, build technique and reach their heights. Under the long leadership of Pamela Jordan, to whom Justin Tranter referred as his (insert juicy swear word) hero, CAA is only one of four schools like its kind in the U.S. The students, like Ms. Jordan, are incredibly dedicated to their art and 50 percent of them travel over an hour each way just to attend. If only every school in the U.S. could build such focus and determination.

2012-05-14-ATastefortheArtsChefs_photocreditRobertCarl2.jpgAfter the performances, with a little Semi Precious Weapons still singing in our heads, the guests continued on to the tented terrace where some of the city's top chefs and restaurants showed off their art. Richie Farina and Chris Jones of the always-pushing-the-gastronomic-envelop restaurant, Moto, dished up an unearthly Mac and Cheese. Chef Dale Levitski of Sprout/Snail N Frog served up Zuchinni Cake with Fois Gras Frosting. Stephanie Izard of Girl and the Goat gave us Goat Empanadas. (Yes, yes, yummy, yummy! ) Tony Mantuano of Bar Toma offered Mozarella Rollatini. Slurping Turtle/Takashi sizzled up Duck Fat Fried Chicken. Heather Terhune of Sable dazzled with Maple and Bourbon BBQ Glazed Pork Belly. Jennifer Jones of Topolobampo delighted with Coconut Ceviche. Amanda Rockman of Bristol/Balena created the most sumptuous and colorful macaroons known to man and Mr. Bayless himself delivered heaven; otherwise known Malted Chocolate Tres Leches. Yes...all of these famous people were in the same tent! If this wasn't enough, hosts Rick and Deann Bayless and Donna LaPietra and Bill Kurtis auctioned off dinner in their respective homes to help ensure that CAA raised a whopping (estimated) $440,000. Hoorah! A large and supportive crowd was in attendance, such as the lovely Candace Jordan and long-time CAA supporter Cheryl Sloane, making this truly an evening among stars of all ages and for generations to come.

Photo credits: Robert Carl and Jennifer Girard