This Is What Happens When You Turn a Traditional Annual Gala Into an 'UNgala'
For its 17th annual spring fund-raiser, Chicago’s famous ballet company shook things up in a major way.
Photo: Cindy FandlCHICAGO—“This isn’t your grandmother’s ballet company,” said a transgender cabaret singer at the Joffrey Ballet’s 17th annual gala on April 12. And by looking around, it was clear that the sentiment was true—especially this year, when the gala switched from its traditional format to something entirely different.
For the 2019 event, the ballet company’s women’s board, led by co-chairs Laura Kofoid and Coco Meers, decided to christen the gala with a new name: the UNgala. True to its name, the event strayed from its past iterations in almost every way possible.
Formerly held between the Auditorium Theatre (where there was a performance) and a downtown hotel (where an ensuing dinner-dance took place), the 2019 gala took place entirely at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, which will become the company’s home base soon.
“The Joffrey Ballet is known as an innovative force in the industry and our gala should reflect that spirit,” said Chelsea Robinson, the Joffrey Ballet director of special events. “With our move to the Lyric Opera House in the fall of 2020, this was the perfect year to make bold choices and offer guests a preview of the Joffrey experience in our future home. Our co-chairs … are entrepreneurial, out-of-the-box thinkers, and were not afraid of making major changes and rethinking the entire event format from top to bottom.”
While past years’ dinners included assigned seating and plated courses, this year’s event saw guests piling their plates at scattered buffet stations and taking their seats anywhere they liked—candlelit rounds, lounge seating, and highboy tables were all options. And while in the past the gala enforced a strict black-tie dress code, this year the hosts asked guests to show up “untied, fancy, but fresh.”
The entertainment was also entirely shaken up. The evening kicked off with cocktails and a performance from the ballet company; afterward, guests were invited to explore entertainment spread out over three levels.
There were pop-up dance performances, stilt walkers blowing bubbles, magicians, and costumed performers atop pedestals surrounded in curtains of fringe. Plus, in a lower-level space known as the “Moody Lounge,” guests took in performances from some of Chicago’s best known drag and transgender performers. Throughout it all, there were cocktails to be had, along with snacks ranging from gilded macarons to sushi and pretzel bread with beer cheese.
In many ways, the evening had a choose-your-own adventure feel, but planners wanted to make sure that guests knew all their options.
“The most challenging aspect of such a major shift in the gala format is communicating the changes and what they mean to our guests,” Robinson said. “We spent a lot of time developing thoughtful communications to tease the idea that a change was coming, later on giving little sneak peeks to what those changes might look like, and closer to the event [we shared] more detail than normal like navigation maps, food selections, and entertainment. With such a dramatic format change, we wanted guests to feel like they were provided the resources to determine how their evening would unfold or given the option to have the experience be a surprise—whatever they were most comfortable with.”
Going forward, elements of surprise will likely be a hallmark of the gala. “We have made a commitment to keep innovating and refreshing the gala format in the spirit of the organization’s commitment to bringing new works and stories to the stage,” Robinson said. “We know that we won’t return to a traditional seated format, but exactly what next year’s gala will bring is up to the imagination.”
Just don’t expect anything grandmotherly.
Audiovisual Production: Frost
Catering: Jewell Events Catering
Decor: HMR Designs
DJ: Matt Roan
Entertainment: Kicky Productions
Invitations: Chirp Design
Photography: Dan Rest
PR: Agency H5
Venue: Lyric Opera House
Video: Big Foot Media