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In early 2020, Chicago Ballet Arts, a non-profit school with a rich 35-year history, was facing immense challenges. With the emerging pandemic and the need to relocate from its longtime Chicago home, the non-profit organization’s future was in doubt.
But then an opportunity emerged in Evanston when Foster Dance Studios announced it was closing in the summer of 2020. With a made-for-dance facility near north of downtown and just steps from a CTA train station, it triggered what CBA’s leader calls “a leap of faith.” Chicago Ballet Arts moved to Evanston.
“We jumped on it,” said Maliwan Diemer, artistic and executive director of CBA. “It seemed like a gift from the sky that a fully built-out space with the exact number of studios we needed was becoming available.”
CBA took over the lease from Foster Dance and negotiated a new one as the school prepared to move from its longtime home at St. Scholastica in West Rogers Park. “We knew it would be a stretch to make the space work financially, but during the pandemic, where kids were already missing out on so many things, we felt an intense urge to make this happen,” Diemer said.
As a school that offers training classes for young dancers from the city and suburbs, CBA was quickly embraced in Evanston. “CBA has come to a city with great interest in the performing arts,” said Tim Rhoze, artistic director at Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre and founding member of the Evanston Performing Arts Collective.
“You had to find a way to hang on until you can open your doors fully, but CBA is in good hands and found ways to make it work,” Rhoze said.
Starting in September, CBA will offer about 50 classes per week in three dance studios. A preparatory division works with students ages 2 to 5, and the pre-professional and enrichment divisions are focused on dancers ages 5 to 18. The school has a dozen instructors and seven musical accompanists.
Meera Sundareson’s daughter, now 10, has taken dance classes for five years and followed CBA to its new Evanston home. “It’s a diverse group from Chicago and the suburbs and it’s been great to see her find something she really enjoys,” Sundareson said.
Katherine Greisman’s 13-year-old daughter has been a dancer for six years and joined CBA just this year after taking a placement test by Zoom. “We wanted solid ballet training in a warm environment with high expectations. Inclusion and diversity are important to our family, and we found it here,” she said.
John Spalding has three daughters and a son who’ve been dancers at CBA. He’s now president of the board of directors.
“It’s been a year of turbo-charged change,” Spalding said. “In the middle of our search for a new home, the pandemic emerged. It was a difficult time and holding the school and staff together was a challenge. Landing at Foster Street emerged as the best solution for Chicago Ballet Arts,” he said. “We want even more Evanston students at CBA, reflective of Evanston’s diversity,” he said.
In its first year in Evanston, CBA became involved in local organizations and events including the Evanston Chamber of Commerce, the mayor’s economic advisory council, ETHS career day and the Evanston Performing Arts Collective.
CBA does not require auditions for new students but places them in classes that match their abilities. That policy comes from founder Claire Carmichael, who worked to make dance classes accessible to as many students as possible.
Scholarships are available to students and families. “If a dancer wants to stay with us, we make sure it’s financially possible for them to do so,” Diemer said.
Board president Spalding points to an endowment fund that was started by donors many years ago and is sustained with donations that make scholarships possible. “Most schools our size don’t have that,” he said.
Meeting the needs and challenges of students is part of CBA’s mission, said executive director Diemer. That included updating policies this year when the first transgender student signed up for classes. “We were happy this parent felt we’re the place for their child. We’re committed to creating a safe, welcoming environment. We sent the new policy to all families and said we’re standing by it.”
Learning their St. Scholastica lease wouldn’t be renewed after 20 years, just as the pandemic began, was a major challenge, according to Diemer. But the availability of studio space on Foster Street in Evanston was an opportunity too good to pass up. “We have a school we’re proud of and a wonderful community of families who’ve been counting on us for a long time. The timing worked out as well as it could,” she said. “We’re so excited to be in Evanston, even though our name is Chicago Ballet Arts.”