Cooking in Chelsea

At the Kitchen, a New-Style Chef

At a little before 10 a.m., Elise Bernhardt, executive director of the Kitchen Center for Video, Music, Dance, Performance, Film, and Literature, is trying to unlock the building. Fitting key after key into a daunting array of locks, she grins at the little crowd around her: two Russians who've come to fix the roof, a couple of guys from Three-Legged Dog here to wrestle with the setup for a multimedia theater piece, and me. She bets we might be thinking, "Eight months on the job and she doesn't have the key to the place."

The Kitchen's board and the New York art world are trusting that, in a deeper sense, Bernhardt does have the key to the Kitchen. Her appointment was a surprise. She's energetic, visionary, smart about funding, but since 1983 she's headed a very different kind of organization. Her brainchild, Dancing in the Streets, fosters innovative free performances in such diverse public spaces as Wave Hill, the Astoria pool, the Red Hook piers, the under-construction Wexner Center in Columbus, and the village of Ivye in Byelorussia. An estimated 16,000 people watched Grand Central Dances in 1987. It's hard to name a cutting-edge choreographer who hasn't been associated with DITS at least once.

Now Bernhardt heads a compact two-theater building way west on 19th Street. Unlike DITS, it depends in part on box office receipts. And the place has had an erratic history. The organization focused on cutting-edge video back when Steina and Woody Vasulka ran it out of the kitchen of the Mercer Arts Center. From 1973 to 1985, housed in a pillared loft at Broome and Wooster, it became a gathering place where artists struck sparks off one another and a performance venue that encouraged experiment. Philip Glass, Bill T. Jones, Karen Finley, Laurie Anderson, and Molissa Fenley are among those who presented early work at the Kitchen. David Salle, Robert Longo, and Cindy Sherman had their first solo shows there. Eric Bogosian was the first dance curator. The move to 19th Street cut the Kitchen off from its drop-in Soho ambience, and trouble surfaced in the '90s, as C. Carr chronicled in a Voice cover story ["Will the Kitchen Sink?", October 11, 1994]. Mismanagement, overdependence on shrinking NEA grants, unwise decisions, and reportedly uncivil behavior by some staff members made for a rocky profile. The place has been running smoothly of late, but hasn't had a permanent executive director for two years.

So how does Bernhardt reconcile her love of public art and community involvement with running what people have come to consider just another performance space? Sitting in her top-floor office, fingering one of the many raw-pasta necklaces that her six-year-old, Aaron, fashions for her, she swivels her chair to delineate the neighborhood circling the Kitchen: "Chelsea Piers, the women's prison, 38 art galleries, the seminary, the housing projects, four public schools, Chelsea Market, and the Roxy. One thing that interested me about this place was that you have this microcosm of New York: people who do the sports thing, people who do the arts thing. If you could figure out a way to embrace all those worlds--not all at once necessarily, but in strategic partnerships-- you'd create sort of a model of how a culturalcenter should function."

The Kitchen has secured a a grant from the Lila Wallace­Reader's Digest Arts Partners Progam to build such relationships. Education director Treva Offutt, formerly of Urban Bush Women, has already come up with an idea about neighborhood kids painting murals to brighten up the Kitchen's dour exterior.

With Chelsea now the exploding art scene Soho once was, Bernhardt fantasizes about spreading out into the garage next door: not only an expanded gallery, but maybe a Kitchen bookstore, a Kitchen café. Why not "Cooking in the Kitchen"? Some artists she knows are great chefs. Meanwhile, she's focusing on the possible, and on adding to what's already in place. In two events called TV Dinner @ the Kitchen, video artists Joan Logue and Gary Hill will show and talk about their work while they and spectators munch from a vegetarian buffet. ("I really believe that the barrier between artists and other people completely falls apart when you're having a meal.") Three workshops will bring kids into the Kitchen. Archival tapes need to be preserved (cross your fingers the NEA comes through) and copies added to the present rental collection.

Bernhardt's enthusiasm and openness to wild ideas mates with practicality. "We have to renovate. We have to buy back the building [Robert Wilson holds the mortgage]; we have to outright own it in three years." A few individuals were keeping the organization afloat; Robert Soros, who cochairs the board with Glass, has been a major annual supporter. Bernhardt argued for a cash reserve. A generous grant secured from the LuEsther Mertz Foundation allows for that cushion as well as for "capacity building," which covers, for instance, the roof problem; and "we're about to get a whole bunch of computers so the staff can actually work and not be over each other's shoulders." She points wryly at the ancient little Mac on her desk. Better toilets are needed. There's no proper lobby.

One of the director's missions: "Let's sort of come back to what the Kitchen was. What made it special? It has one leg in the performing arts, one leg in the visual arts. We get an enormous amount of support from the visual arts world, so let's go back to those friends and see how we can work with them." Another Kitchen hallmark: fostering contact between artists from different disciplines-- contacts that may result in collaborations. The notion of collaborations gets Bernhardt fired up. At DITS, she brokered quite a few. This December at the Kitchen, visual artist Gary Hill and choreographer Meg Stuart will come together in the culmination of a three-year project, Splayed Man Out. And then there's the ultimate collab form: "Where do people really get to do small scale, smash-the-envelope opera? Here! They should be doing it here." She's delighted that ex­music curator Ben Neill brought in Chaos, a comic science-fiction opera. And how's this for a future possibility? Lighting designer Jennifer Tipton and choreographer William Forsythe want to collaborate on lighting a dance by Susan Marshall. "I said, 'Come here. Go wild! Use the space!'"

So: the Kitchen as a lab where you cook up stuff, as well as a great place to present it. The building boasts a fine, flexible second-floor space and, on the ground floor, one of the best black boxes in the city. As choreographer Wendy Perron says, "It's intimate--I mean you're close to the audience--and yet it's so high. And deep. The dimension gives the work depth." No wonder Belgian dancemaker Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker has chosen this venue for a farewell appearance (opening September 22) in her earliest work, Fase.

I would imagine that shaking up the Kitchen might not always sit well with the organization's board or with curators used to complete autonomy in their respective fields, but as anyone who's seen Bernhardt in action knows, her artistic smarts and sense of community can bring this historic institution to a steady boil.

Nancy Topf was on her way to teach a workshop in Geneva when Swissair Flight 111 crashed. Through her classes in "dynamic anatomy," known as Topf Technique, and in private sessions, she introduced people to their bodies--not just their physical bodies, but their emotional and spiritual ones. Youdidn't have to be a dancer to discover what it meant to dance freely and creatively in her classes. You didn't have to be injured to feel healed by her wisdom. Everyone who knew her speaks of her warmth and buoyancy. "She took so much honest-to-God joy in what she did," says dancer Hetty King, "and that never went away." It's not just Nancy's husband, musician Jon Gibson; her son Jeremy; and a large immediate family who mourn her, but the far larger family touched by her knowledge and spirit. A memorial concert is being planned for early December.

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