Dancing About Architecture

Judith Jamison and Trisha Brown Are Movin' In

Darwin is the first name Kate Levin, commissioner of the city's Department of Cultural Affairs, mentions in connection with the current building boom among contemporary dance companies in New York. "It's a sign of generational maturity," says the Berkeley Ph.D., who used to teach at CCNY. "Ballet companies have their own facilities, but they are devoted to a form," as opposed to individual choreographers. How, then, to explain the new edifice going up for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater on West 55th Street, and, even further west, the 16,000 square feet of studios Trisha Brown recently occupied?

"It speaks to their ability to reach an audience that they are stable enough to afford their own homes." Maturity is one thing, but home ownership? From the closest thing America has to gypsies? "There's nothing that says a peripatetic dance company is better," Levin observes. "There's a moment in the development of nonprofits where they institutionalize. It's wonderful to know where your next rehearsal space is and what kind of amenities—showers and lockers—you're going to have."

Choreographers are obsessed with showers. The facility bug, indigenous to Europe, always bites in the shower. But while American choreographers agree that Europe does arts facilities right, the jury is still out on European arts funding. Few would trade places with the Paris Opera Ballet, which receives two-thirds of its operating budget from the French government. Just ask choreographer William Forsythe about Frankfurt or Mark Morris about Brussels. They'd love the money, but the strings, or what Levin calls "the double-edged sword of a significant state investment in the arts," they could do without.

A former West Side parking garage is Brown's new home.
photo: Tyrone Brown-Osborne/Maverick Arts
A former West Side parking garage is Brown's new home.

Choreographer Trisha Brown is tucked behind a music stand in her new studio, one of four that architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien have transformed for her company's home, all clean lines and white walls. The huge ramp that curves into the second-floor administrative offices is the only hint of the space's former incarnation as a parking garage.

"We don't have a transition there, do we?" Brown asks her dancers. She's setting Winterreise, a Schubert song cycle, on the group, and one of them, Seth Parker, is standing in for baritone Simon Keenlyside, who in addition to singing the challenging music, is tackling the choreography Brown is making on Parker during the company's three-week season now running at John Jay College. "He's a very dedicated worker," Brown says calmly. "We'll do our best in the time we have."

That could be Brown's career mantra. Having pushed the very definition of movement at Judson Dance Theater in the '60s ("Give me a date and I'll tell you how many people were booing"), launched her own troupe in the '70s ("I was a UFO even back then"), and choreographed Lina Wertmuller's Carmen in the '80s ("I learned I had to direct to work with my own aesthetic in opera"), today she creates opera, visual art, and choreography. Having worked everywhere from Judson Church to her Soho loft, she now has privately funded acreage to call her own on West 55th Street west of Eleventh Avenue, a big step up from the 1750-square-foot studio in her live-work space at 541 Broadway.

"Even though the loft was 35 feet wide," Brown explains, "the stage we use is 28 feet deep, so I could only get seven feet back from my work. My head was constantly swinging back and forth." Now she has the space, and showers, but nothing like the in-office, shoji-screened Jacuzzi Mark Morris sprang for at his 30,000-square foot center out in Brooklyn. Money goes further out there. "We have the basics," Brown says. "I'd love to have a whirlpool, but we have everything we need to do the daily work of a dance company—heat, air-conditioning."

Even though Brown kept it simple, her executive director, LaRue Allen, admits, "If September 11 had been in 2000 instead of 2001, we would not be in this space today. We would not have had the courage to go ahead with the project. We would have gone back to Trisha's loft downtown and the company's profile would have been very different."

Given the current funding climate, it's not easy being Bill T. Jones, who's shopping for a 20,000-square-foot home for his company in Harlem, or Mikhail Baryshnikov, who's folding his White Oak Dance Project but is rumored to be purchasing a much larger dance center on West 37th Street. However, Arthur Mirante, president of Cushman & Wakefield, points out that the commercial real estate market is much softer than the residential one. "There are more choices for companies than there were two years ago," Mirante says, adding, "but it's more difficult to raise capital; certainly a contribution from the city or the state is more difficult. People have less money than they did two years ago." He should know; he's also the AAADT board member who found the former Sesame Street studio now torn down to make room for Ailey's new $54 million, 77,000-square-foot digs, going up two blocks east of Trisha Brown's.

Ailey's artistic director, Judith Jamison, can't say enough about Mirante's find. "He literally walked the streets of New York for months." Jamison is sitting in her office on West 61st Street, a space the company shared with Trisha Brown for five years. She passed on purchasing the rental because "it was astronomical to refit this entire building." Her office is stacked, salon-style, with the accumulations of a 44-year-old dance company. There's a giant giraffe behind her desk. She won't have a Jacuzzi either. "With my champagne budget I had a swimming pool in the building," Jamison jokes. "But then I found out what the insurance costs."

Despite marching with a white umbrella down Ninth Avenue in full Revelations regalia to Ailey's ground breaking, Jamison's not exactly gleeful about the new eight-story glass-and-steel structure that will house 12 dance studios and a black box theater. In fact, she's slightly pissed. "We've been waiting for 44 years for a building to call our own." She doesn't romanticize impermanence as the dancer's way. "That way wasn't because of color, it was about 'I'm a struggling artist and I can't find a place.' Ailey wasn't about that. The fact that we're celebrating actually having a home after 44 years is odd. Without any pomposity, I say we deserve it. We've been housed in the basement of BAM and a church on 59th Street. We've been fighting a long time for this."

Growing up black in what she now calls the "tradition of 'no,' " Jamison remembers taking dance classes in the '50s. "It would come to partnering and there would be no partners that wanted to touch you." She danced as a guest with American Ballet Theatre in 1964, and says bluntly, "There were no black people in ABT." Yet, she maintains, "there's a perseverance behind being told that you can't do something."

Ailey's 44th New York season opens at City Center December 4. "Finally after 10 years in the company, Matthew Rushing's on the cover," she beams, holding up the house program, "I asked for 31 individuals and I got 'em, believe me. It makes the job not a job. I mean, how many people get a chance to do this? There's not another contemporary company doing a five-week season in New York. I have to pinch myself sometimes. A lot of people brought us to this juncture." With that she's up and bounding to a noon rehearsal, pausing to point out an architectural detail of what will soon be her former office. "It gets either freezing in here or too hot," she says, motioning to the floor-to-ceiling windows. "But at least we have the sky."

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