Dance studios, like parking lots, tend to occupy properties on an interim basis, in the window between dereliction and desirability. Since 1999, at least seven Manhattan dance studios have been forced to shut down and three have relocated. Four major downtown schools—Paul Taylor, Limón, Dance Space, and Peridance—may soon be looking for new homes as their leases expire.
But while smaller rehearsal and performance spaces are disappearing, some venues survive and are even expanding. The prestigious Dance Theater Workshop purchased its building at 219 West 19th Street (until recently also home to a tire store) in 1995, before the market’s recent run-up. On March 9, DTW will hold a ground breaking ceremony and kick off a major capital campaign; they’ve begun demolishing their two-story structure and will erect a bigger facility containing a 200-seat state-of-the-art theater, expanded office space, two studios (one of which will be usable for informal showings), a media lab, and an artist resource center.
To finance the project, DTW reached a deal with a developer to construct several stories of upscale residential housing in the airspace above the theater. The Upper West Side’s Symphony Space, an old movie house turned performance venue on Broadway at 95th Street, also leveraged its real estate to advantage, selling its air rights to the Related Companies. The Lyric, a 22-story luxury rental apartment building, now sits directly over the theater. In 1998, the playhouse was renovated and its sightlines improved, making it a more attractive venue for dance. Symphony Space now plans a major overhaul of its facility, to be completed in March 2002; a corollary effort to raise $24 million is under way. The 800-seat theater will be spruced up, the facade redone, and the adjacent Thalia, a long-dormant cinema, revived as an art-film house and cabaret, with a new café offering up fresh lattes.
Founder and director Isaiah Sheffer envisions dance as playing a larger part in Symphony Space’s future programming. He sees the theater as an uptown alternative to the Joyce or midtown’s City Center. In addition to dance events curated by Kay Cummings, Symphony Space may be rented at subsidized rates by dance companies.
An Insignia ESG real estate report indicates that commercial properties have been in tight supply. In September 2000, availability for midtown rentals was down to 3.2 percent of supply, less than half the rate for the same period in 1999, which was 7.2 percent; downtown the spread was even greater: 4.2 percent in 2000, down from 10.4 percent in 1999. The strong economy of the last few years and the accompanying surge in commercial and residential property values are driving artists out of Manhattan.
Last month Dance Theater Workshop announced a new program, “Outer/Space,” which will subsidize rehearsal space in other boroughs. Executive Director David R. White sees the project as a “companion piece” to the construction of DTW’s new building and a response to the “debilitating need” for affordable rehearsal studios. The $30,000 DTW received from the city (exactly the amount it asked for) will be divided among three to five performing arts groups.
Williamsburg Art Nexus (WAX), which opened in September at 205 North 7th Street and is already booked solid through June, is among the applicants for these funds. WAX is a collective formed by Marisa Beatty, Brian Brooks, Melissa Rodnon, and David Tirosh, performing artists in their twenties who have made it their mission to create a viable, attractive performance venue in Brooklyn. Built in the 1950s as a factory, probably making garbage disposal parts, the one-story structure housed a small theater group until December 1999, when WAX took over the lease. The place was a shambles. The founders scraped together $13,000 to cover rent, security, and insurance, and began extensive renovations. So far, they’ve rewired the electricity, built a technical booth, stripped water-damaged boards from the ceiling to expose wood beams, installed a professional lighting grid, converted illegal living quarters into offices and dressing rooms, and created an art gallery at the building’s entrance.
Vanessa Paige—who managed Soundance, a company that shuttered its Tribeca studio last summer in the face of mounting costs—reports that when the studio was closing, she contacted the WAX people, who “harvested the lightbulbs and took them to Brooklyn,” along with mirrors, tools, fabric, ceiling fans, and other equipment. “I was absolutely thrilled that this stuff went to people determined to put it to its best use,” Paige says. The WAX theater has a 30-by-36-foot performance area with a marley floor. Huge skylights brighten the space during the day. Synagogue pews—purchased for $1 each on eBay—supply 64 comfortable audience seats. Rehearsals cost $12 an hour and performance rentals are $60 per hour.
Though rental income is starting to come in, each of the four directors still contributes about $425 monthly to keep WAX going. The grant application to DTW is their first proposal. If successful, they’ll use the funds to pay for a Web site and subsidize their rental rates. They also plan to install a handicapped-accessible bathroom and make improvements to the theater. Currently, the four directors are the whole staff; they take shifts running the facility, which is open from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m. daily, in addition to holding down other (paying) jobs and/or working on their performing careers. They display energy and excitement, but also exhaustion. “We knew this would be a tremendous strain, both financially and emotionally, but we felt an obligation to save this building for the community,” says Rodnon. Beatty admits that though they’re working to develop long-term goals, so far they spend their time “putting out little fires.” Amazingly, the four—who were not all friends before this endeavor—have no written agreement. They have strong personalities and desires that are not always aligned, but Beatty believes their working relationship is “close to ideal.”
Brooks, the first of the directors to self-produce at WAX (his Moving Company performs there March 15 through 18), is optimistic about the future. Decrying the “victim mentality” of many artists, he says, “It’s not the state of the dance world that’s bad, it’s people’s attitudes that are bad.”
Choreographer and ballet master Zvi Gotheiner, who lost his space at 550 Broadway when the landlord practically tripled his rent, believes dancers are “addicted” to dancing, that they’ll keep finding places to work despite the current crisis. His Soho loft had been a dance studio for 30 years, home to modern-dance greats Daniel Nagrin and Paul Taylor among others. Gotheiner taught daily ballet classes there and, with a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts, made the space available for rehearsals at $10 per hour. Soundance and Gotheiner now share office space on West 38th Street; they lease from Pentacle, a dance service organization pushed out of its Franklin Street office and studio early last year.
The rent for FreeRange Arts, Dale Fournier’s bright studio at 250 West 26th Street, was also due to triple. Although she explored various options to keep it open, including forming a choreographers’ collective, Fournier had to close the space last November.
Aside from institutions fortunate enough to own local property, the biggest beneficiary of Manhattan’s real estate insanity is Brooklyn. As the borough’s preeminent performing arts institution, the Brooklyn Academy of Music is perfectly positioned to capitalize on the influx of immigrants from the isle of the Manhattoes. Jeanne Lutfy, president of BAM’s Local Development Corporation, says BAM has developed an international reputation, but up until a few years ago it was “all alone” in the neighborhood. Harvey Lichtenstein, longtime director of BAM, wanted to create a “vibrant context” for the opera house and cooked up the idea of a BAM “cultural district.” They envision a mixed-use cultural landscape combining arts groups, educational facilities, housing, restaurants, retail, and other amenities. The open-ended, multi-million-dollar undertaking is centered in a 14-block area around BAM in Fort Greene.
Lutfy sees the cultural district as, in theory, “the opposite of Lincoln Center.” Rather than flatten a neighborhood to erect a monumental arts center, the BAM LDC plans to develop vacant and underutilized properties. Lutfy and Lichtenstein are not looking to “overhaul” the character of the neighborhood, which has some beautiful, brownstone-lined streets; instead, they’re taking a fill-in-the-blanks approach. “We don’t think we can chart the direction of this entire thing,” says Lutfy. They plan to “initiate and activate development” so that things can happen “organically.”
The project’s recent coup was luring big-fish choreographer Twyla Tharp to the area. The BAM LDC found Tharp a 6500-square-foot space at the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church on South Oxford Street in Fort Greene. This cavernous former Sunday school had been used as dead storage for many years. The BAM LDC is leasing it directly from the church and paying for the $500,000 renovation, which includes repairing gorgeous stained-glass windows, installing a dance floor, and building offices. Tharp, in turn, plans to make the studio a home for her company. The buzz is about community interaction. Tharp will invite the public to open rehearsals and informal performances. She’ll hold classes at all levels, for professionals, amateurs, and local children. Ever ambitious, she plans to expand her company, currently six members, into something that might eventually be called the Brooklyn Ballet.
Tharp’s arrival in Fort Greene will coincide with the opening of the five-story Mark Morris Dance Center at 3 Lafayette Avenue this spring. Although, for technical reasons, BAM LDC facilitated the transfer of ownership of Morris’s site from the state to his company, plans for his development predate the cultural district concept. Morris will be, nonetheless, a prominent settler in the burgeoning BAM colony.
Of course, the balance constantly shifts. The strong economy has benefited the established arts organizations. Maybe a downturn will be kinder to the smaller groups.
Harvey Lichtenstein and other speakers will address the space crisis facing the arts on Wednesday, February 28, at 6:30 p.m. in the Proshansky Auditorium at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, 365 Fifth Avenue.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 27, 2001