Category In the News

Dance for the Common Good 

Lea Guccione, Sheridan Road

The pattern of Ellie Forman’s career is deeply embedded in the fabric of Chicago’s arts and nonprofit communities. A natural connector, she has spent the bulk of her career bringing people together for the common good. This fall she renews that mission in her second term as President of The Women’s Board of Chicago’s iconic Joffrey Ballet.

“When I moved to Chicago in my 20s and was starting to engage with the city and find my way, I navigated toward the Joffrey,” she says. “I started attending performances, and once I was exposed to the Joffrey, I was hooked.”

“Aside from the stories the dancers are telling through their dramatic physicality and the sets and visuals onstage at the Lyric Opera House, an unexpected but important piece for me has become the meditative and mindful moments of the ballet-watching experience. No phones, no fidgeting, no multitasking. For a busy mom and professional, watching the dancers gives me much-needed Zen time,” Forman explains.

Seeking to give something back, she joined Joffrey’s Women’s Board in 2014, co-chairing the Women’s Board Luncheon fundraiser. The board, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2022, was created to increase support for The Joffrey Ballet and extend its impact as both a cultural and educational organization. The board’s all-female membership organizes vital fundraising efforts for the Joffrey.

Her affinity for the performing arts began as a child in St. Louis, where dance and musical theater were her hobbies and always a part of her zeitgeist. When she began her professional career in public affairs, Forman gravitated toward working with arts organizations, nonprofits, and universities.

“Eventually I came to realize that I was helping bring attention to partnerships that my nonprofit clients had with their corporate sponsors. And I thought to myself, ‘I could be the person at the table establishing these partnerships and leveraging corporate dollars to better our communities.’” This passion drew Forman to her current role as Senior Vice President of Corporate Responsibility at Mesirow, a highly philanthropic global financial services firm. In Forman’s first three years co-chairing the Women’s Board Luncheon with Kathleen Sarpy and Jamie-Clare Flaherty, she helped welcome 625 attendees, raising more than $160,000—a vital success for the ballet. From there, she continued to take on new roles within the board: secretary; co-chair of the Women’s Night at the Joffrey; and co-chair of the membership committee.

Like many arts organizations, the Joffrey was not immune tothe impact of COVID pandemic-related closures. “With the loss of all ticket revenue, the Joffrey’s survival was dependent on philanthropic gifts from donors to ensure the long-term health of the ballet,” Forman says.

Facing this impasse head-on, Forman was tapped to co-chair the newly formed Crisis Stabilization Fund. “This was our project to help the Joffrey raise, in donations, the equivalent funding it would have raised through ticket sales, donations, and events.”

Alongside Jamie-Clare Flaherty and Farissa Knox, Forman helped organize strategic giving and virtual events. Ultimately, she helped raise $12 million for the Joffrey in philanthropic gifts over 18 months. Especially heartening for Forman was the 100 percent participation from all 148 of the Women’s Board’s members, raising more than $380,000 for the initiative.

Since then, the Joffrey has rebounded triumphantly. “We are seeing that seats are filled and people are coming back. The Joffrey is matching and enticing that interest level by bringing ground breaking productions to audiences.”

In fact, the 2022–2023 season was one of its best. “Anna Karenina, which was the production in early spring, was the highest-grossing production other than The Nutcracker in Joffrey history, followed by The Little Mermaid in April, which was the third-highest-grossing non-Nutcracker production.”

The upcoming 2023–2024 season features Frankenstein, the critically acclaimed adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic novel opening October 12. October 26 is the annual Women’s Board Luncheon, chaired by Farissa Knox, Merritt DeWitt, and Cheryl Tama Oblander, with tickets, tables, and sponsorships available to all interested. Forman considers the board’s increased and modernized par ticipation a highlight of her role as President. “We’ve made a very cognizant and purposeful effort to stress the need for increased diversity on the board,” she says, “Our work in diversifying not only the Women’s Board but the Joffrey’s audiences will never be done; it’s an ongoing effort and commitment of the organization as a whole.”

When The Joffrey Ballet cemented its roots in Chicago in 1995, its ambition was to educate and inspire the community. Since then, the impact has flourished. Just one example is Joffrey Community Engagement, the leading dance education provider in the city of Chicago, with more than 93 programs in 26 schools throughout the Chicago Public School system.

"The goal is to bring in new audiences from all neighborhoods of Chicago to experience cutting-edge dance and art that is really pushing the envelope, which was always the vision of Robert Joffrey,” Forman says. “We want to continue to be there to drive that goal forward."

Read the feature in Sheridan Road here

Photography by Katrina WittkampStyling by Theresa DamariaHair and Makeup by Cathleen Healy