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In the wake of controversy, Chicago Human Rhythm Project adds new leadership

Add the Chicago Human Rhythm Project (CHRP) to the list of noted Chicago performing arts organizations undergoing a major leadership shift during a historic summer marked by upheaval, reflection, and the seismic financial/existential crisis of season cancellations due to the COVID-19 virus.

Emmanuel Neal, 47, has been named new interim managing director at CHRP. Founding artistic director Lane Alexander, 60, has not announced when he’ll step down. 

“We’ve transferred day to day operations to Emmanuel, which was the first step” in a five-year strategic plan ratified in 2019, Alexander said. “Artistic direction of various programs comes next.” CHRP is currently searching for a new artist in residence; that position that might be combined with the artistic director spot, Alexander said.

Like Pride Films and Plays, Victory Gardens, iO and Second City, CHRP’s longtime artistic director faces intense criticism about his leadership tenure. Much of it came in the wake of a June 4 open letter that was eventually signed by some 900 members of the dance community. That letter, penned by M.A.D.D. (Making a Difference Dancing) Rhythms founding artistic director Bril Barrett, states that Alexander sent multiple e-mails to leaders of the tap community that “accused each of us of supporting violence, appropriation and genocide against your ancestors, White Irish Americans” by supporting Black Lives Matter protests. Barrett taught and performed for years with CHRP.   

That letter sparked a subsequent onslaught of social media posts stating Alexander made CHRP a place defined by body shaming, sexism, and the cultural erasure of tap’s origins in Black and African cultures.

The groundwork for Neal’s new role was laid long before the social media outcry. The transition in CHRP leadership is part of a five-year strategic plan crafted in 2018 and ratified in February 2019, Alexander said. That plan was facilitated by the Arts & Business Council of Chicago’s Business Volunteers for the Arts program, which serves as a sort of matchmaking service between nonprofits and people looking to serve them. Neal joined CHRP’s board last year after participating in the Arts & Business Council’s onboarding program, where he earned praise as an innovator and potential “change agent” from the Council’s executive director, Kristin Larsen.

As a mortgage loan officer during the 2008 recession, Neal is no stranger to tough times. “There was a lot of suffering when the 2008 crash came. It was hard to see. But I knew then—and now—that art is one of the things that has always been society’s saving grace. It continues through the madness and the tough times,” he said.

A PhD candidate at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, Neal is also an author and editor (Dear Cancer, The Anthology) and a producer of balls, poetry readings, fashion shows, and comedy showcases. Neal said one of his greatest joys is working as a DJ, especially at events where he can spotlight his passion for house music.  

In addition to poring over CHRP’s financials (per its 2018 tax filing, the latest available publicly, CHRP’s annual income was just under $810,000, with expenses totaling about $783,000), and absorbing three decades of institutional history, Neal is grappling with a cultural landscape devastated by COVID-19.

“I think of the artists who are struggling to live. I think about their issues. Billy Porter gave an interview about how art is so integral to society and how we really need to think about that. Artists are essential workers, and they deserve to be treated as such,” he said.

But that’s not how artists at CHRP were treated, according to Barrett and the barrage of social media posts that erupted around his June 4 letter to Alexander. That letter was spurred in part by a May 31 social media post from Alexander, which stated:

“While some members of the tap community were advocating for violence yesterday, our home at the Fine Arts Building was being attacked by rioters.” Alexander continued with an all-caps plea to stop advocating for violence, adding “George Floyd would not want this.” Alexander also took to Instagram to ask Barrett “Do you support violence?” after claiming M.A.D.D.’s founder “seemed to condone” violence in an earlier Facebook post.

click to enlarge Bril Barrett - WILLIAM FREDERKING

  • Bril Barrett
  • William Frederking

Barrett made that earlier Facebook post after waking up on May 25, National Tap Day, to the video of George Floyd being killed by Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin.

“I grew up in Lawndale. I’ve seen dead people. I’ve seen people shot. But I’ve never seen the life actually drain from someone’s eyes. I woke up ready to celebrate National Tap Day, and instead, I see yet another Black man getting murdered,” he said. Barrett responded to Floyd’s murder on social media:

“Maybe, the only way to stop the killing of unarmed black men and women, is to make it expensive,” he wrote on May 25. “Killing one of us will cost you your whole city. Nothing else seems to work!” he concluded.

Just over a week later, Barrett’s open letter rejected Alexander’s accusation that the post “seemed to condone violence.” 

“I said that perhaps the only way to stop the killing of unarmed Black people is to make it expensive. I stand by that statement. Civil disobedience is not violence. The mission of Black Lives Matter is fundamentally nonviolent,” Barrett said.

“Violence is kneeling on an unarmed man’s neck until he is strangled to death. Violence is breaking into a home with impunity and shooting a woman sleeping in her own bed. Violence is profiting from Black labor, Black pain, and Black art while failing to support Black people,” he said. 

After Barrett posted the letter, responses on social media continued to mushroom, many of them describing instances of sexism and racism at CHRP, as well as a failure to acknowledge that tap is rooted in African and African American dance.

Alexander vehemently denies all claims of erasure, racism, and sexism.

“There’s a very strong disagreement about the history of tap,” Alexander said. “Did it come from African Americans, or from people of British, Scottish, and Irish descent as well? I believe there was a combination of influences. To me, disagreeing about history doesn’t make either party a racist. I believe my ancestors made a contribution to the evolution of this art form. That some artists want to erase the contribution of my ancestors, that could be kind of a cultural genocide.”

For its entire history, Alexander said, CHRP has with words, deeds, and money promulgated and supported an inclusive, diverse tap community.

He lists actions such as successfully lobbying the Kennedy Center to host its first mainstage tap concert, bringing a tap curriculum to Northwestern University, and confronting the National Endowment for the Arts with stats proving that Eurocentric forms of dance such as ballet get the lion’s share of grant funding, leaving only scraps to tap and other percussive forms.

Alexander also points to copies of multiple letters he’s written over the years to Chicago arts editors and critics at Crain’s Chicago Business, the Tribune, the Sun-Times and others “to bemoan the Eurocentric coverage and to provide not-so-gentle prods to include non-European dance forms in their coverage.”

Money talks, Alexander added, estimating that CHRP has spent roughly $6.5-$7 million paying artists for their work, with between 65 and 70 percent of that going to artists of color. For a decade, CHRP hosted Chicago’s National Tap Dance Day celebration, where “every tap dance company in Chicago” was paid to perform at the Vittum Theater, he said. Alexander also points to numerous productions where women and artists of color took the spotlight and were “proportionately represented.”

Additionally, Alexander added, CHRP pays roughly $11,000 a month in rent at the Fine Arts Building (410 S. Michigan Avenue), so the organization’s teaching arm—the  American Rhythm Center (ARC)—can provide inexpensive classroom space for new teachers. Putting ARC in the Fine Arts Building was a means of “plant(ing) the flag of cultural pluralism and authentic diversity downtown,” Alexander said.

Barrett and his myriad supporters have a very different view of Alexander’s efforts, culminating with his post claiming some in the community advocated violence. While CHRP’s board reached out to Barrett with an apology, Barrett believes Alexander has not taken responsibility for any of the criticism lobbed over the past few months. When attempts at a mediation between Alexander and Barrett broke down, CHRP’s board didn’t follow up with any further meaningful attempts at reconciliation, Barrett said.

“Him attacking people if they don’t agree tap came from the Irish? Deleting our posts asking about decades of racism and sexism? That says something about Lane. About how he’s treated some of the people in the community. To just slide out and leave the mess to someone else? That’s the cowardly way,” Barrett said.

Neal is fixed on moving on, and making sure the organization survives a summer that has seen arts organizations of all sizes pummeled by all that COVID has taken, including millions in ticket revenue. CHRP’s August 10 Jazz Showcase performances were scuttled “as a result of last night’s serious looting and violence in the the Loop,” according to an August 10 press release. The closure of Navy Pier shut down an August 12 performance slated there. Online classes are continuing as scheduled. 

“It’s definitely not business as usual,” Neal said. “My focus right now is on doing whatever we can to support artists in their work and in their life. What support do you need, what can we provide,” Neal said. “It’s also classes. We’re figuring out how we can give our students the best experience possible at a time when nothing is normal,” he added.

“There are smart, creative people on the board,” Neal said. “It’s a progressive group that’s thinking ahead. As an artist and a business person, I can contribute, and that’s what I plan on doing.”  v

For more information about CHRP’s upcoming programs and classes, go to chicagotap.org

For more information about Making a Difference Dancing Rhythms, (M.A.D.D. Rhythms), including the upcoming Virtual Chicago Tap Summit (October 2-4), cosponsored with the Harold Washington Cultural Center, go to maddrhythms.com.

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