Theater archives

Honey, I Blew Up the Theater


David White, the Godfather, more or less, of New York’s downtown dance scene, has led Dance Theater Workshop (DTW) since 1975, when it was a scrappy 10-year-old collective lodged above an Economy Tires store. “After 27 years and the longest learning curve since Creation,” he says with a rueful laugh, “we have finally secured our real estate.”

Last week, DTW opened its fall season (first up, Ronald K. Brown’s intimate odyssey Walking Out the Dark) in a brand-new four-story performing arts center, erected on its West 19th Street site. The presenting and service organization’s new home features a theater twice the height, width, and audience capacity of the previous low-ceilinged space. It also has two state-of-the-art rehearsal studios; an up-to-the-minute, into-the-future technology lab for documenting and—a favorite word around DTW—globalizing dance; and functional, windowed administrative offices. Not to mention a café, and a broad terrace with a view of both the Empire State Building and leafy Chelsea backyards.

Until 1995, DTW didn’t even own the one floor it occupied. The nonprofit was hemorrhaging money to rent, which had climbed from an initial $14,000 a year in 1975 to $125,000 two decades later, when the organization finally bought the whole building. The city’s Industrial Development Agency promised the landlord tax-free bonds if he sold to his scrawny tenant. “We bought the property,” White says, “only about 10 minutes before the art market moved into the neighborhood.”

Then came many sweaty seasons of capital campaigning to finance the project—now officially known as DTW’s Doris Duke Performance Center in a nod to the $2.5 million that the private Duke foundation donated. In 2000, the fortuitous sale to developers of the 19th Street site’s air rights, which were valued at zero dollars in 1995, contributed another $3.3 million. The center has largely been made possible by the eight floors of condos stacked over its head.

The new building is a beneficiary and a relic of the boom economy; it is also a monument to all that DTW has done to buffer dance-makers from booming and busting economies, and other conditions they cannot control. Unique among local dance presenters in this regard, DTW under White has devoted itself to devising programs that protect and extend the working lives of dancers and choreographers.

In the early ’70s when he was just out of college, White wanted to be a dancer. “I didn’t know much about dance, but I was very enthusiastic,” he says. But when choreographers didn’t return the enthusiasm, “I did what most bad dancers do—I became a company manager.” Small dance companies could hardly afford to be managed, however. So, the same year that he took over DTW, White helped form Pentacle, in which three partners shared responsibility for four companies. (Though not exactly the same beast, Pentacle is still going strong, now assisting dozens of small troupes.)
“I came out of the ’60s and the anti-war movement,” White says, “which proved that a collective force could be greater than the sum of its parts.” When he fell into “the fulminating sub-basement” of downtown dance, he worked from the same principle. But delicately.

“In Brooklyn, where I live, there are these little backyards with fences,” he says. “If you’re down in your yard, you sometimes can’t see over to the next yard.” That’s the modern-dance field from the perspective of any one of its various aesthetics, each of which is necessarily complete unto itself and often at odds with its neighbors. In its commissioning and presenting, DTW keeps close to the ground and, viewing work through a leftist, multiculturally sensitive lens, chooses one artist over another. Only for the programs that distinguish it from other performance spaces does DTW move up to the third-floor apartment, where, says White, “the isolated backyards suddenly form a pattern.” From that height, where contradictory aesthetics blur together and artists’ common conditions stand out, DTW shapes its most ambitious and innovative programs.

Launched in 2000, Outer Space, for example, subsidizes the rent of artist-run rehearsal studios in the outer boroughs, where much dance activity migrated when the real estate boom ate up Manhattan spaces. These centers are required to pass on their subsidies, in the form of reduced rates for rehearsal time, to the choreographers who traffic through them. By buttressing the spaces, DTW supports several distinct constellations of choreographers.

One of DTW’s first and most enduring programs was the National Performance Network. In the early ’80s, White had begun to notice that small, risk-taking spaces, like On the Boards in Seattle and the Painted Bride in Philadelphia, were dotting the country, but they didn’t have much to do with one another.

White rounded up 14 directors of these “outposts of progress,” he says, “and we set about to organize our wilderness of independent research and experimentation” so that choreographers, performance artists, and theater directors would have a life beyond the centers that had brought them up. The National Performance Network (NPN) arose in 1985. (In 1998, with DTW’s help, it spun off on its own, and now counts more than 50 organizations as its partners.)

The NPN began mainly as a touring structure. But by the time such network favorites as Tim Miller, Holly Hughes, Karen Finley, and John Fleck were christened “the NEA Four,” it had become a web of moral support too. “When artists started to get attacked,” says White, “the public didn’t stand up and champion them. The arts turned out to have no popular constituency. So it helped that we had a peer structure that provided some political and financial buttressing.” In 1990—the same year that Finley, et al., had their NEA fellowships rescinded—a defiant NPN sent San Francisco’s Pomo Afro Homos on the road.

But many artists weren’t so inclined to be cocky anymore. By the mid ’90s—even before NEA head Jane Alexander accused them of “neglecting participation, democratization, and popularization”—artists had largely relinquished their century-old claim to outsider, visionary, loner, and freak status and were thinking hard about “community.”

“By the ’90s, a lot of funding was being directed at art forms to do the heavy lifting of social beneficence that the government had abandoned,” White explains. “And artists work reactively.” In 1993, DTW created Public Imaginations to fund choreographers’ projects with particular constituencies, such as prisoners, nurses, schoolchildren, and public housing residents. (Later this month, David Drake’s solo theater piece, Son of Drakula, inaugurates Outer Edge, the most recent prong of Public Imaginations, with gay and lesbian audience members as the target constituency this time.)

DTW has been proactive and it has been reactive—fueled by utopian hope but governed by a strong sense of political reality. It is also a bit paranoid. White, for example, may disparage choreographers for “the fatalistic assumption that you’re just here for this moment and then you’re going to get splatted like a mayfly,” but then he proceeds to count the ways they have been splatted: the boom economy, the bust economy, the right-wing attacks and consequent loss of buckets of federal funding, and the ideological restrictions on the funding that remains. The new building is a bulwark against that chronic vulnerability. “We’ve guaranteed, into the future, a place for artists to work,” White says soberly. “If we’ve done nothing else, at least we’ve done that.”