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The Buzz, 2-15: Location, location, location!
New Space and $5.5 million for Dance Space; but Sarah Still Can't Pay the Rent in Mike Bloomberg's New York

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2006 The Dance Insider

Built in 1846, the A.T. Stewart Dry Goods Store -- later to become the Sun Building (for the old New York Sun) and tomorrow, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg cuts the ribbon, the new home of the newly renamed Dance Space Center, with a 20-year lease from the city -- is, according to Tom Fletcher's New York Architecture website, "one of the most influential buildings ever erected in New York City." Stylistically, Fletcher writes, the building that will house Dance New Amsterdam and, potentially, a renaissance in deep downtown culture "may be the first example of Renaissance Revival architecture" in New York. Commercially, the city's first department store "inaugurated the commercial development of Broadway north of City Hall."

As a dance space, the 25,000 square-foot facility will house six dance studios, a 135-seat theater, a Pilates studio, an art gallery, and a street level cafe. The professional dance community will be directly served by dance presenting and an expansion to more than 140 weekly classes, including, DNA executive director Charles Wright tells the Buzz, a $10 class starting this fall.

Judging by the $2.6 million the city and other government agencies have invested in the project -- of a total of about $5.5 million, says Wright -- I think it's fair to presume that the city hopes DNA will enrich not just the dance community but the cultural diet of all those who live and work in the downtown environs of the building's 280 Chambers Street location. The verdict's still out on how much the performances (some 50 over the next few months) on offer from DNA will expand the dance audience among these citizens; the tale-spinner Sean Curran may convert them, but are normal people who are not so fortunate as to make their living onstage really interested in hearing Dixie FunLee Shulman complain in public about how costly it is to produce a work of modern dance? (I'm not playing the smallest violin in the world for you, Dixie.)

That said, I hope that DNA's achievement in securing all this $ and this simultaneously new and historic (it's a Landmark) building will help to cure or at least counter-act the beggar-at-the-table syndrome that has so often afflicted us.

It's a syndrome that Wright, co-founder of DNA, is well aware of.

"This is driving me crazy -- 'dance as the poor cousin,'" he told me yesterday, noting that at the root of this syndrome is that "dancers have to dance and we will dance at any given moment -- we dance for free and we get taken advantage of. Actors and musicians have a stronger union. Dancers have this driving need to get out there and get our endorphin rush." (Note the our there, dancers; hallelujah that a dancer-directed enterprise has scored this funding coup.) "Dancers are not dancers if they don't perform.... Dance is such a difficult profession that if you can get up and out you do (actually it's a calling, not a job)....

"Somewhere in the '80s we, the founders of DNA, decided to leave dark dingy falling-down studios and elevate the art form. To present it seriously. A lot of people in New York felt this way. (Ailey had a dream, Dance Theatre of Harlem had it too.) We all came out of these terrible places and we began to search for dignity in our art form. And it's been a long road. The first thing we did in '84 was build our own studio (with just our hands and love), which was the first like it outside of the University departments. If you think back, even the Julliard Dance Department wasn't what it was today. It's been a long hard role for everyone. But we're committed to having places that have dignity and beauty in which to ply (our) trade. And it's lead us to this $5.5 million dullards new home and the support of the city."

Does DNA's securing of this jewel indicate a real reversal in the trend that began a few years ago of dance studios and companies being evicted from their homes by high rents? "I don't think the trend has been reversed," Wright said. "There've been some high profile studios that got built. Ailey with the $75 million building and DNA with a $5.5 million renovation. There's also Dixon Place. These are wonderful revitalizations. There's a great deal of credit to be given to these helping hands (more like lifelines).

"But a lot of the single dance studios are gone. It's like single family farmers -- now all conglomerates. And like the Mall of America theory. If you're big enough you can make it. It's a shame because there were a lot of small places to rehearse that don't exist anymore. I heard how in the '70s there were 270 schools in New York, (including) small studios (David Howard, BBC, etcetera). But by the '90s there we're only 20-odd. The single studio got wiped out. We survived by having multiple studios, but many had to join forces or dissolve or retire.... It's still hard but it's a hopeful time."

Unsettled -- to say the least -- is to what degree this sort of largesse to important institutional infrastructures will make it easier for choreographers to create and dancers to live in New York City.

"I worry there are all these spaces; are we going to have money to commission scores and pay dancers?" Curran told the New York Times's Erika Kinetz. "I need some money for costumes and salaries. I hope that will follow."

And, before we coronate Mike Bloomberg as the best mayor of all time for the arts in New York, I think we need to remind ourselves that Mike Bloomberg's New York is not designed for the poor; in fact, as the New York Daily News's Juan Gonzalez revealed before the last mayoral election, it's designed to give them the boot. In a world where arguably the hottest choreographer in New York complained as recently as last January (to the Village Voice) that she couldn't pay the $1,100 rent on her tiny East Village tenement studio, that's an economic class that also includes dancers and choreographers. In fact, one might say it's a class that includes dance's...DNA. If Mr. Bloomberg really wants to secure the cultural commodity that makes the city, to his interests, attractive to corporations and tourists -- if he wants to attract the next Sarah Michelson to this petri dish -- he'd do well to ensure that the real DNA of New York's cultural eco-system is cultivated as well.

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