Harris Theater Celebrates 20 Years of ‘Groundbreaking’ Work With $5M Donation and Latest Show ‘Jungle Book reimagined’

The Joan B. and Irving B. Harris Theater for Music and Dance, located in downtown’s Millennium Park, is celebrating its 20th anniversary. That’s no small feat for any nonprofit arts organization and particularly for one established, in part, to house the city’s midsize arts companies who often find more challenges compared to the larger, more seasoned institutions. 

Designed by local architect and Driehaus Prize-winner Thomas H. Beeby, the modern, underground, state-of-the-art structure opened its doors to the public in the fall of 2003 and was the first multi-use performing arts venue to be built downtown since the Civic Opera House in 1929. 

Now a staple in the Windy City’s landscape, the Harris boasts an impressive roster of almost 30 Chicago-based performing arts organizations, as well as presenting productions from more than 32 countries around the globe. Just last year, technical investments in sound and lighting provided an artistic upgrade for the many cutting-edge performances slated for this anniversary season.

“As Chicago’s home for music and dance, the Harris is proud to play a part in the city’s vibrant cultural scene and uplift the work of groundbreaking artists and organizations,” said Lori Dimun, Alexandra C. and John D. Nichols President and CEO, in a press release. “In this exciting 20th anniversary season, we celebrate the Harris’ tremendous evolution, charting a course of continued support for a growing community of resident companies, commissioning new works, presenting artists from across the globe and from our own backyards who are pushing their art forms forward, and expanding the impact of our programming.” 

Abby McCormick O’Neil and D. Carroll Joynes

Of course, funding plays an integral part of every aspect of an arts organization and the Harris is no exception. This week, they will honor longtime Chicago arts philanthropists Abby McCormick O’Neil and D. Carroll Joynes for their $5 million gift to “help ensure a sustainable future for the institution.”

In a press release on their historic donation, O’Neil said, “This is a pivotal moment to further invest in this new legacy institution that Chicagoans have built together. Even in the challenging landscape facing arts organizations now, the Harris is nimble, innovative, and designed to create a rising tide for artists.”

Joynes adds, “The arts are an essential outlet for human expression, connection, and civic engagement. It is now more important than ever to come together to support the longevity and potential of our cultural spaces.” 

As a founding board member and former Board Chair of the Harris, O’Neil is committed to “supporting artistic excellence in Chicago, as well as bringing a global perspective to programming.” Part of that global vision includes bringing in visionary artists like Akram Khan, whose namesake company based in the U.K. performs his Jungle Book reimagined this weekend.

On opening night this Thursday, November 9, the Harris will name the 1,500-seat performance hall the Deering McCormick Hall in honor of O’Neil and Joynes, a dedication worthy of their generous donation and continued support. It’s also a full-circle moment being the anniversary — almost to the day — of the theater opening to the public on November 8, 2003.

As mentioned, programming and bringing in international artists is a major part of the Harris’ mission. Enter Akram Khan. He is a world-renowned and award-winning dancer and choreographer known for his hybrid style of the traditional Indian classical dance form, kathak, blended with contemporary dance techniques. His multi-media, collaborative approach to his work is fueled by an impetus to “take risks, think big and daring, explore the unfamiliar, avoid compromise, and tell stories through dance that are compelling and relevant, with artistic integrity.” His “rules” for creation match well with the Harris’ mission.

Photo by Ambra Vernuccio

In 2019, the Harris presented the North American premiere of Khan’s interpretation of Giselle to their enthusiastic Chicago audiences and started a relationship that is still unfolding today.

The “Harris Theater, from the very beginning, has always felt like my U.S. home,” Khan said in a statement provided by the theater. “A place of refuge, curiosity, reflection, and of accountability to the stories we project through our art. The world isn’t simple enough to explain in words, that’s why such spaces like the Harris Theater are extremely important, for our species … to question, to celebrate, and to reflect through dance and music, what it means to be human.”

Lucky for us, Khan is back in Chicago this week with his first family-friendly production — suitable for ages 8+ — an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s classic compilation of stories The Jungle Book. Much like the original, Khan tells the story through the eyes of the animals, but with an updated, 21st-century twist.

Khan and his creative team “reimagined” Kipling’s tale by making Mowgli — now a girl, inspired by his young daughter — a climate refugee who has escaped from their climate change-ravaged homeland. Much like his 2023 creation, Creature, which was also presented at the Harris, this story is set in a future world devastated by human impact. 

The ”dance-theatre” production focuses on “our intrinsic need to belong and bond with others,” while bringing an important message of respecting nature to the forefront.

Khan collaborated with a diverse group to bring this story to life which includes writing; original music; singing; sound design that sounds like you’re in a jungle; advanced lighting; video projections and animation; along with movement featuring 10 of his company dancers in his magically imagined environment. 

Performances of Jungle Book reimagined run November 9-10 at 7:30pm and November 11 at 2:00pm at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, located at 205. East Randolph St., Chicago. Tickets range $35-$180, with a show run time of 2 hours, including intermission. For more information or to reserve your tickets call the theater at 312-334-7777 or visit them at the Harris Theater online.

In addition to purchasing tickets, you can support Harris Theater in their ongoing mission to be Chicago’s home for music and dance, uplifting the work of innovative artists and organizations, by donating today.

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Photo by Cheryl Mann

Vicki Crain is a Chicago-based, freelance arts and culture writer. Her work has recently been featured in Chicago Magazine, and See Chicago Dance, as well as on her blog/podcast Rogue Ballerina. The second book in her children’s book series, The Furry Princess, will be published in 2024.