WAX On, WAX Offby Lynn Crawford
Williamsburg Art Nexus Closes Its Doors, for Now
The Williamsburg Art neXus (WAX) has certainly lived up to its name. Since opening in 1999 as a noncurated theater space for dance under the direction of Marissa Beatty, Brian Brooks, Melissa Rodnon, and David Tirosh, all performing artists, it has become the de facto community dance hub. It is not an exaggeration to say that nearly every dancer in the city has either performed, rehearsed, worked, or attended a performance at WAX.
In fact, over the last five years WAX had one of the most ambitious and exciting performance calendars in the city, scheduling shows fifty weeks out of the year. At its intimate 64-seat theater, I saw established downtown dancer and choreographer Jeanine Durning lumber about in a moon-ready space suit replete with a helmet. At another show, I witnessed the perfect synthesis of film and dance in a stop-motion video by Brian Brooks and Sarah Browder that captured Brooks gliding through Union Square and along the Williamsburg waterfront. This summer I saw the first modern dance piece—to my knowledge—that incorporated the use of nunchucks, a type of martial-arts weapon. And the performance lineup also consistently featured first-time works by young choreographers.
Sadly, all this will come to a close this month, when WAX’s current lease ends. Efforts to save the venue began last year. The codirectors tried to extend the lease and even entered into negotiations to purchase the building with a team of investors.
“We tried initially to follow the DTW (Dance Theater Workshop)–Dixon Place model,” says executive director Marissa Beatty, “finding a team of investors who would be interested in demolishing the place and building a property that had commercial space but also accommodated a theater on the ground floor or basement. And we found a couple of investors.”
But to be a part of this venture the WAX codirectors needed to come up with a lot of money. Although WAX was far below market value, they would have to fund-raise five to six times the yearly budget. And “that was a gargantuan task,” sighs Beatty.
But Beatty is careful to emphasize that this is not just a story about art and real estate. “Fund-raising that amount of money wasn’t out of reach; it was just big,” Beatty explains. “And looking at our organization—who was going to be doing it with me?” Cofounding members Brooks, Rodnon, and Tirosh would all be stepping down from administrative roles in order to pursue their own personal and professional interests. Plus, there were organizational issues to be resolved.
“There were just all these things, and it didn’t make sense,” says Beatty. “I said, ‘what am I doing here?’ I am sheltering an organization that’s been subsisting off volunteer labor and it cannot continue. Now I’m attempting to take that unhealthy structure and put it into a position where it’s in major debt? And with a major commitment for a long-term stay? All of a sudden it started to feel like a prison sentence [rather] than an actual opportunity.”
Beatty ultimately chose to restructure WAX’s organization, explaining that the decision to let go of the lease was probably one of the hardest decisions she’d ever made. “It took a long time to get to that point because I knew how valuable the space had been to people,” she explains. “I couldn’t stand the thought of taking it away.”
WAX has no immediate relocation plans, but Beatty intends to lead what has been termed WAX: Phase II. During the coming year she will build WAX’s programming and management structure with the broader goal of reopening a professional arts facility—one that has heat, air conditioning, and, she laughs, “dressing rooms separate from the offices.”
In the Beginning
WAX opened just as numerous studios and performance spaces in Manhattan were forced to shut down, edged out by the tight supply of property created by the strong late-90s economy.
Originally a 1950s-era factory that probably made garbage-can parts, the one-story brick building housed an artists’ collective before WAX took over the lease in 1999. At that point, the building was dilapidated. Despite its battered appearance, Brooks admits he fell in love with the space from the beginning. “Marissa and I had a real passion for the neighborhood. And it was right above the subway, and the size—it just seemed so inspiring,” he says.
While many would have been put off by the extensive repairs and required renovations, the WAX cofounder had the foresight to see beyond the mess. “I just noticed the dimensions between walls, ceiling, floor, and that was really appealing,” Brooks explains. “Everything in between could be changed, into the space we imagined.”
During that first year, the cofounders tore down the ceiling drywall to expose wooden beams; laid down a marley floor; built a lighting booth, sound system, and front gallery; created fifteen-foot-tall, floor-to-ceiling sliding doors that served as a kind of gateway to the theater space; and installed seating, synagogue pews purchased from eBay for $1.
Although the codirectors had worked in theater production, none had any experience in building and renovation. The work was grueling. “We would be delirious at 4:00 in the morning, eating our third pizza of the day. Drywall dust was everywhere,” Beatty recalls. But they were “buoyed up by a sense of camaraderie,” she says of their commitment to the fledgling dance venue.
The WAX crew also depended on the help of friends who donated time and put them in touch with plumbers, electricians, and carpenters. “We couldn’t have done it without them,” says Tirosh. “Building was an unbelievable experience; disasters and miracles happened all day long.”
A Place for Artists
WAX’s popularity stemmed from the belief that all artists, no matter what stage in their careers, deserve to be seen in a professional venue. To that end, WAX did a fair amount of behind-the-scenes work with the artists who performed there. This often took the shape of free production consultations and help coordinating press and publicity.
The organization vigorously supported the creation of new works through Waxworks, a monthly noncurated performance series open to emerging and seasoned artists alike. Here, pieces in all stages of development were welcomed and presented onstage complete with lights and sound.
Waxworks was originally developed by Beatty and Rodnon at Dancespace Project St. Mark’s. “It was a great working relationship in terms of complimentary skill sets,” says Beatty of the Danspace and Waxworks collaboration. “We built the program from the artist standpoint, and they kept coming back. We went from an audience of five people once every other month to forty to fifty people twice a month,” Beatty further explains.
“Waxworks was a way to improve the quality of contemporary dance,” Rodnon says. According to her, the early ’90s featured several alienating dance works. “Really absorbed and obtuse. Not fun to watch,” she explains. “[It] doesn’t have to be only nice work [contentwise]. Say what you want to say, but think about the audience a little bit,” she remembers thinking.
Rodnon explains that Waxworks was used regularly by such established artists as Clare Byrne, Barbara Mahler, Amy Larimer, and Jill Sigman. “They did it for the same reasons as younger choreographers—they wanted to know how things played in front of an audience,” Rodnon says. In addition, participants received written feedback from theatergoers attending the Waxworks performances.
Waxworks was a breeding ground for immeasurable creativity. Rodnon recalls a solo by Julia Frodahl that included pouring water into glasses and a fish tank. During the course of the performance, lighting designer Janusz Jaworski saw that this held lots of possibilities from a stage-design perspective. He then lit the glasses and the tank so that the water and the goldfish glowed. “No other job would allow for the witnessing of minor technical miracles like that,” Rodnon sighs when recalling such experiences.
What They’ve Learned
Shepherding show after show from rehearsal to polished performance has enriched the creative lives of the codirectors. In the five years WAX has operated, Brian Brooks, for instance, has mounted several successful shows for his own company, the Brian Brooks’ Moving Company. His most recent work at DTW last spring, Acre, was a multimedia movement study of the color green in its varying shades and subtleties. He now tours and teaches across the United States.
Watching performers load in and out of WAX encouraged him to be “really efficient with the technical aspects” of his work. In addition, working backstage on numerous performances—both administratively and technically—helped him to identify quite accurately the potential of theater spaces in general. “That’s been wicked informative,” he says of this work. Brooks admits that now his “pieces are more self-contained—like mini-installations [that] can be folded up into a suitcase and popped into another space.” We can only hope that the same can be said for WAX: Phase II.