featured photo

The Kitchen

Brought to you by
Body Wrappers; New York Flash Review Sponsor
the New York manufacturer of fine dance apparel for women and girls. Click here to see a sample of our products and a list of web sites for purchasing.
With Body Wrappers it's always
performance at its best.
Go back to Flash Reviews

Go Home

Flash View, 3-8: This Year's Space Odyssey
You've Been Dot.commed. What Now?

By Veronica Dittman
Copyright 2001 Veronica Dittman

Let's review. In the past 18 months, at least ten dance studios available for rental at $10-$15 per hour have closed their doors. Many of them (Soundance, Free Range Arts, Pentacle, Context, Dance Space Center, and 550 Broadway Dance) were located in tony downtown Manhattan neighborhoods and were forced to close because their rents were raised out of range or they just plain lost their leases. Only Dance Space has been able to reopen a studio. As it was so pithily stated at 550 Broadway, "We've been dot-commed."

Ideally, the mayor would have been aware of this trend and understood its broad implications for the dance world and the cultural stock of New York. He would have recognized how crucial this affordable rehearsal space is to dancemaking. To create a dance you need at the very least dancers, space, and time (don't start with cyber or virtual anything, please); a lack of space effectively chokes the creative process. To make matter worse, everyone (from mid-size companies with budgets and touring to self-producing newcomers) is competing for the same limited space; only the Cunninghams, Taylors, and Limons of the world have their own studios. The loss of more than ten sources of this vital commodity creates nothing short of a crisis in New York's dance world.

This hypothetical arts-savvy mayor would have been particularly sensitive to the smallest fish in the modern dance pond, those still paying their production bills one at a time out-of-pocket and auditioning for showcases, trying to get noticed. These dancers and choreographers are trying to make work in addition to holding down jobs that will both pay an astronomic New York rent and allow time for training ($12-$15 per class) and rehearsal.

Why pay attention to the small fry? This mayor would recognize that modern choreographers are not incubated in an academy; they're the dance equivalent of garage bands, not string quartets (this is a limited analogy, and there is no disrespect intended). Trisha Brown, Mark Morris, and Twyla Tharp all came up from this environment of creating new structures and rules, of invention from the ground up; they were the small fry of the '60s and '70s. As such, the mayor would want to make sure that the next Brown, Morris, and Tharp have, at the very least, a garage -- the space necessary to explore and develop their choreographic voices. This fictional mayor needn't even appreciate what they're doing or give a damn about dance. He need only recognize that Brown, Morris, and Tharp are New York City cultural resources and tourist attractions in the same way the Yankees, the Guggenheim, and the Empire State Building are. Even if he had only mercenary interests, he would bend over backwards to ensure their creative well-being and that of their heirs in this city.

So Rudy Guiliani is not our ideal mayor. If he were, he would have fought like hell to help the Joffrey Ballet resolve their financial difficulties and stay in New York. But the contrast between an ideal and the actual climate for the arts here in the "dance capital of the U.S." reveals how dancers have been placed in a lose-lose situation with respect to our physical environment, the city. On the one hand, we are so strapped for resources that we are unable to secure homes for ourselves. But then, we are culturally aligned with our generally educated and upper-class audience to the extent that when we seek work-space in unfashionable neighborhoods we can actually afford, we create tremendous potential for culture-clash.

****** Consider first that we've been pretty much priced out of lower Manhattan, an actual place so important to our field that "downtown modern dance" refers to a recognizable aesthetic. So what? we say defiantly. We're creative by definition; with the loss of so much arts funding in the past decade we've learned to survive on pennies and good wishes. The world is full of spaces big enough to dance in, and we are innovative and hard-working enough to make them danceable. Given the New York real estate market, this means decentralization. Brown has found a place in midtown, but this decentralization is leading most dancers to Brooklyn. To name only a few, Tharp is taking up residence at the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Fort Greene, Brooklyn and Morris is building a home a half-mile down the road. Morris, quoted in the Winter 2000 issue of The Hill, says, "We want to subsidize our operation so we can rent our studios out for a dirt-cheap cost so other people can use them. Maybe up to $15 an hour, not the $60 we pay in Manhattan." (He also posits that "Pina Bausch may rehearse there, or Donald Byrd, and I'm happy to help." Presumably he's also happy to help those without an international reputation.) The Brooklyn Arts Exchange (BAX) is now offering $9/hour rehearsal space in the BAX Annex, formerly the American Can Factory. The big success story is Williamsburg Art Nexus (WAX), the performance space where Marisa Beatty, Brian Brooks, Melissa Rodnon, and David Tirosh, all performers, have spent close to $80,000 saved and borrowed dollars on renting and renovating the space. In case anyone needs statistical evidence of the space crisis in New York, WAX is booked for rehearsals twelve hours a day, seven days a week, with performances every weekend, through July, having expended zero advertising to promote the space.

All of these are examples of smart dance people finding alternative spaces. The second part of the challenge is securing the space against the possibility of being dot-commed out of your home ten years from now. Part of the trauma of the spaces lost in the past year was the feeling of being uprooted; we who danced at 550 Broadway harbored the unconscious illusion that it was a home, a safe place. The jolt into consciousness was the realization that it was just a fragile lease. In order not to suffer that ordeal again, the clearest solution is to own the place. Are you laughing bitterly? Sure, Mark Morris can do it, but to most everyone else struggling with daily expenses, buying property is out of the question. Worse than that, because most dancers and choreographers require all their energy just to handle day-to-day expenses, we don't even IMAGINE planning for the long-term.

That would probably be a good first step, to at least have it somewhere in our brains that although rehearsal scheduling and medical expenses and grant deadlines and the crappy day job and that amazing dance consume our thoughts, all of that yields only short-term results. Without even broaching the topic of retirement (ha ha again), we must find a few brain cells we can devote to long-term planning. And if we can imagine something long-term and stable in our dancing lives, can we make it happen? I think it's possible. We have all poured so much money into space rental; we could possibly save a little ahead. We could possibly borrow. Like-minded dancers and choreographers could possibly pool together and invest in a space. The gang at WAX has a five-year lease; imagine what they could do with an option to buy.

It's also helpful to know that most of us are categorized as low- to moderate-income, which makes us eligible for programs designed to help. It takes a little research and requires thinking like an entrepreneur, but neither is really so painful. For instance, microloans of up to $25,000 are available to start up small businesses, but you must have a business plan and a decent credit history. There are small trickle-up grants available for low-income entrepreneurs. In areas that are trying to encourage economic development, local credit unions and banks sometimes have programs that will match your savings with a grant toward your business if you live or locate your business in the area.

It's futile to point out that if the city had subsidized space for dance, this wouldn't be so incredibly difficult, but it is worth noting that subsidized space could help prevent the clashes that occur when we are forced to scout for unconventional spaces. Traditionally, artists have been the "pioneers" of gentrification, the improvement of a neighborhood to the extent that it becomes so desirable that long-term residents are priced out of their homes. By positioning artists as beggars on the fringe of normal, hard-working America in a way that no other self-respecting developed nation does, society gives us a unique dilemma. We need space to make work the way most people need water to drink and we can't afford it in "nice" neighborhoods, so we create homes for ourselves in neighborhoods considered less desirable. The trouble is, our presence in these less desirable neighborhoods illuminates their potential; others see what they COULD be (hipper! whiter!) and come like settlers heading west to tame the wilderness. And the settlers have the financial means to displace the neighborhoods' existing residents, including us. While our arrival in a neighborhood heralds an era of displacement for the low-income residents there, we are vulnerable to that same displacement as long as we remain unable to own property outright. Our challenge is incredibly tricky: We must both struggle for survival in an arts-hostile environment and remain mindful of the population that has even less than we do. Although we may feel like paupers in the new economy, by virtue of our education and creativity we have choices and power that many people in the U.S. don't.

True, we didn't cause the decline in manufacturing in Brooklyn that resulted in a vacant American Can Factory, and Williamsburg and Fort Greene residents have been experiencing displacement pressures for years. However, it's a nasty companion truth that many owners of industrial spaces (read: mouthwateringly spacious lofts) in Williamsburg and adjacent neighborhoods will sooner rent to artists (for living or working, legally or otherwise) than to actual manufacturers because we will pay more per square foot and cause less wear on the building. And here's another unpleasant rock and hard place: the BAM Local Development Corporation (LDC) seeks to create a cultural district around the Brooklyn Academy of Music including live- and work-spaces for artists. It is actually garnering support from the city and state for the project. However, now it must contend with outcry from local, primarily minority artists who feel themselves frozen out of a funding mother lode that favors an avant-garde, white, Manhattan aesthetic. For the most part we embody that aesthetic and when we go to non-white, non-Manhattan neighborhoods, discord follows.

On a small scale, immediate level we can be conscious of and responsible about how our presence affects the neighborhood. For instance, Mark Morris, again in the Winter 2000 issue of The Hill, says that he wants his space to have a dancing school that offers "ballroom dancing, folk dancing, or Afro-Haitian. I want a big, wide variety of classes..." and acknowledges the "very interesting and lively Caribbean population" in the neighborhood. Tharp's residency at the Lafayette Presbyterian Church is being sponsored by the BAM LDC, which allows Tharp to rent the space for a relative pittance, but in turn the BAM LDC will make urgently needed repairs to the Church.

These are small steps we can take to begin to address the inequalities that exist here, but the big picture looks bleak. In a recent e-mail commentary, Paul Ben-Itzak linked dance and politics almost apologetically, but I think it's necessary and maybe even urgent that dancers and choreographers become involved in the political. On one level this means informing ourselves, participating in every election and hearing where decisions are being made, but it ultimately may mean "questioning the system." I'm out of my league here (what am I questioning? The Republican party? Capitalism?) but the deck seems so hopelessly stacked against so many people, I can't help but suspect that something is rotten about the game itself.


Veronica Dittman is a dancer who lives in Brooklyn. She also teaches, produces "The Industrial Valley Celebrity Hour" with Faith Pilger, and is attempting to home-school herself in urban planning.

Go back to Flash Reviews
Go Home