Boom In Brooklyn?

Real estate explosion threatens downtown's dance ecology.

After years of renting space in Manhattan, the internationally acclaimed Mark Morris Dance Group is moving to Brooklyn: its new three-studio building, catercorner from BAM, should be ready in a year. Barry Alterman, Morris's general director, explains that "there's a dearth of small performance and rehearsal space in Brooklyn. The space isn't just for us," he says. "We hope to have a rental subsidy program when the company is on the road." Morris and his group "happen to love Brooklyn," adds Alterman; they bought the abandoned structure from New York State, and are conducting a $6 million capital campaign to cover the cost of purchase, demolition, construction, and renovation.

As much a pioneer in real estate as he is in choreography, Morris is bucking the downtown dance community's resistance to crossing the river. Studios desperate to stay in Manhattan face constant upheaval.

Maureen Brennan, program director of The Field, a downtown arts service organization, thinks it's time for "the incestuous little culture of the downtown dance scene" to broaden its horizons. "At this point, I wouldn't schedule a workshop in Bed-Stuy; audiences wouldn't come because it's too far" and still perceived as unsafe. But, she continues, "somebody's going to have to take the risk, to start working with the community. It can't just be a bunch of white East Villagers in Brooklyn. . . . There's a big building for sale on Fulton Avenue; I look at it every day and wish I could buy it."

In Manhattan, the six-story commercial building at 622 Broadway— at the center of the downtown dance universe and formerly home to Dance Space, Inc.— is under renovation, and soon, claims the realtor's Web site, every floor will be a "clean white box," with central heating and air-conditioning, high-speed Internet access, and nice hardwood floors. In one case, hand-built triple-sprung floors, not that prospective tenants will care. Dancers who've jumped on them for the past 15 years cared a lot.

More than 3000 students a week took classes at Dance Space, headquartered at 622 since 1984. The founding directors located the $4500-a-month, 12,000-square-foot Noho loft, a burnt-out shell in what they recall as a "ghost town." Lynn Simonson, Charles Wright, Laurie DeVito, Danny Pepitone, and Michael Geiger learned to sandblast brick and finish lumber; out-of-work musicians did the wiring. Over the years, in addition to substantial sweat equity, they've invested $130,000 to build five studios plus rooms for massage and Pilates-based instruction.

But Noho is no longer a ghost town. It's just been declared a historic district. Gentrification has attracted chain stores to the block, and rents continue to soar. Like the neighborhood, Dance Space has also thrived, and the directors were looking to expand when they learned, in January, that their lease, which by then cost $10,000 a month, would not be renewed when it expired in July. The short notice turned a leisurely search for new space into a desperate scramble. Hunter College and Bill Young's studio are housing them until construction is completed on interim space at 451 Broadway, where they hope to wait out the current real estate market boom before buying a building of their own. The new studios are a little bigger and have showers, but the rent, $25 a square foot, is more than twice what they've been paying. It would have been higher, but they're renting during the building's transformation from a textile factory and, with the help of volunteer student labor, are building out their own floor, at a projected cost of at least $200,000. This time, though, they won't leave as much of the investment behind: the new sprung floors, which cost about $5000 each at the old space, are portable.

Artists being priced out of neighborhoods they've helped to develop is common in Manhattan, but dancers take these hits especially hard. They're a mobile lot, traveling daily from home to class to various full- and part-time jobs to rehearsals and performances; to survive such patchy schedules, they need to train near where they work. The average dancer can't afford more than one $10 class a day, and studios that are centrally located have the best chance of drawing enough students to amortize high rents. "On the outskirts you pay less rent but risk not having students," observes Igal Perry, artistic director of Peridance Center on Fourth Avenue.

David Dorfman, an East Village resident with a successful touring troupe, is feeling the crunch in his search for reasonable rehearsal space and places to teach. "I wouldn't hesitate for a moment if there were a studio in Williamsburg," he says, pointing out that the Brooklyn neighborhood is closer to downtown than either the 92nd Street Y or the Lincoln Center area, two current magnets for dance students.

At Gowanus Arts Exchange in Park Slope, production manager Sharon Mansur notices that almost half the audience comes from Manhattan, but students are about three-quarters local.

Many of the smaller Manhattan studios are just one rent hike away from folding, but they find it difficult to conceive of moving off-island. An informal poll of the downtown dance community reveals that while Brooklyn might be a successful addition to the scene, few feel good about leaving the historic spaces— Judson Church, St. Mark's, and others— that have cradled modern and postmodern dance; they fear that if the studios moved away from the performing spaces, the community would break up. International students arrive in Manhattan in droves to study dance, but are less willing to negotiate an outer borough.

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