Growing Pains: Dance Stakes Its Claim in Brooklyn

Exiting the subway station at Bedford Avenue last month, I noticed that the lot on North 7th Street, where the Williamsburg Arts Nexus (WAX) stood for five years, now lies vacant. The site—once a breeding ground for emerging choreographers—is strewn with weeds and rubble. In 2004, WAX’s lease ended, the building was sold, and one of Williamsburg’s artistic gems lost its home. Perhaps it is karmic justice that the developers who purchased the building have yet to realize their vision of luxury condos. More likely, it is another sign of a neighborhood in transition.

Like many Brooklyn arts organizations, WAX has doggedly persevered despite constant financial obstacles. After a year-long residency at University Settlement in Manhattan, WAX Phase II will return to Williamsburg this fall through a partnership with Triskelion Arts. With seasoned maturity and the benefit of hindsight, Executive Director Marissa Beatty admitted, “It’s hard to look at it this way, but moving out of our space was fortunate. We were maintaining the organization with luck and volunteer labor. Without the space, we are able to adapt programming to meet more of the artists’ needs.” Still, there is a weary edge beneath the most genuine optimism. The two-headed monster of pricey real estate and gentrification has given dance in Brooklyn a run for its money. (Not that it ever had any.) Despite rising rents, short-term leases, and directors who work multiple day jobs, incubator organizations are finding unique ways to maneuver barriers and feed the pipeline of downtown dance. And much of this activity is happening in Brooklyn.

While Manhattan venues and presenters like Dance Theater Workshop, The Joyce Theater, PS 122, The Kitchen, and Danspace Project have withstood their own trials and financial uncertainty, these organizations are at least 25 years old. They came of age in a less ruthless era when cheap space could still be found and one could pay the rent and afford dance classes. “WAX opened when a dozen dance spaces in Manhattan closed,” Beatty reminded. Burgeoning dancers and curators recognized a sizable gap in New York and set out to fill it in Brooklyn. Little did they know that the plague which began in 1990s Manhattan would soon be biting at their heels.

The stories of Brooklyn dance studios, theaters, and presenters read like coming of age tales. There were years of youthful naivéty followed by the dull thud of reality knocking at the door—mostly in the form of real estate-related financial difficulties, but also sheer exhaustion from working late and rehearsing later. And, finally, bittersweet sagacity set in. Those that are still kicking employ seasoned efficiency, know-how, and creativity to overcome ever-present obstacles and keep dance alive in Brooklyn.

However, sometimes ignorance is bliss. In 2003, Chris Yon and Karinne Keithley, both well-known performers and choreographers on the downtown dance scene, formed a dance space in Williamsburg affectionately called Ur “your neighborhood dance palace.” Yon conceded, “We were completely unprepared—very naïve and unprepared.” Ur’s concept was a “self-sustained business model” composed of dance classes, performances, and a printed zine. Yon and Keithley saw a space advertised at DTW, the first floor of a residential building with a sprung floor, and were “immediately charmed by it.” After two years, their lease was up. “Ultimately, the increased rent and tightening curfew made it unreasonable to stay.” Although their grand visions were somewhat thwarted, Yon remains positive, “I wouldn’t trade it for anything. We learned so much and the memory of Ur isn’t about hardships, it’s about the work that was made there.”

While Ur was short-lived, it represents the ideals of a generation of choreographers, fresh out of school and in need of space, time, and an audience. According to Jeff Larson and Andrew Dinwiddie, some of these artists also need a kick in the pants. As curators and hosts of Catch (founded by Jenny Seastone Stern in 2003), a bi-monthly performance series at Williamsburg’s Galapagos Art Space, Larson and Dinwiddie aim to give performance opportunities to people who want them, but can’t find space elsewhere. “Sometimes an artist needs to have a performance date set; it lights a fire under their ass,” Dinwiddie explained at a dingy Lower East Side bar, “At Catch, an emerging choreographer might perform on the same evening as someone more established. That forces them to get their shit together.”

There are many symptoms caused by the financial predicament of being an artist in New York City; one often overlooked is the shortage of community. “It’s not that people aren’t making work, but we are missing camaraderie. Everyone is concerned with their independent dilemma. You don’t have time to support anyone outside your immediate circle and that’s deadening,” Larson insisted. Catch attempts to bridge this divide with strategic programming. “Within the small world that is downtown dance, there are many factions,” said Larson, “Catch really gets people in the same room.” At every Catch show, ten or eleven artists representing a mix of artistic styles and skill levels are given seven minutes of performance time each. “The audience is aware of a broad range of experience and material, and that changes expectations,” Dinwiddie continued. On October 7, Catch 19 will include Faye Driscoll and Christopher Williams in its impressive line-up, artists who are, according to Larson, “sort of on different planets.” The November 18 Catch will feature Karinne Keithley and David Neumann, and Miguel Gutierrez is on the Catch line-up for December 2.

Just south of Williamsburg in the warehouse-turned-loft haven of DUMBO, Young Soon Kim shares the passion for presenting emerging choreographers on a mixed-bill program. As the Artistic Director of White Wave Dance, Kim has presented innumerable dance companies in her annual showcase festivals—the DUMBO Dance Festival and the Cool New York Festival. “In 2001, I found a dozen choreographers whom I loved immensely. I saw a new wave in contemporary dance and wanted to share it with the audience. We’ve been expanding non-stop ever since,” she summed up in the small but impeccable office adjacent to her studio/theater near the East River waterfront. Kim also knows how to draw an audience. “I’m committed to keeping the festivals free of charge; people line up all the way down the block. With an audience, this place is totally transformed.”

Of course, it’s never so simple. A Korean-born immigrant, Kim has weathered her share of hardships. “I came from Korea with $240, two suitcases, and a dream of becoming a dancer,” she recalled. Prior to opening her space in DUMBO, Kim leased a studio in Manhattan, which she lost to a commercial tenant in 1999. After several months of hunting, she found the John Street studio and signed a ten-year lease. “It took eleven months and $200,000 to renovate. For the first two years, I had no funding whatsoever. The city council awarded $15,000, but then 9/11 happened and that money disappeared,” Kim admits, “I had no idea what I was getting into.” In many ways, her hard work has paid off. “We’ve been writing grants year-round. After five years, I am finally able to pay the rent on time. It’s been a constant struggle.”

White Wave’s newest project, the Wave Rising Series, will give fourteen carefully-selected choreographers the opportunity to show a full-length piece in a two-week curated series. “It is so difficult to produce a season, especially for rising choreographers,” Kim recognized. “If you have a performance coming up, your energy is going towards that. That preparation time is great for your career.” Including established artists such as Molissa Fenley and Nina Winthrop alongside newcomers like Leah Cox, the Series will run October 25 to November 5, immediately following the popular DUMBO Dance Festival.

Like White Wave, programs organized by WAX Phase II are evolving to fit the changing needs of a generation of choreographers. “There has been a dialogue in the dance community since the 1960s that male peers were getting opportunities faster than women,” Beatty asserted, citing The Gender Project, which began in 1998. Thus, WAX joined two uptown partners to create Sugar Salon. “This is meant to be an annual program supporting women who make strong, solid performance work,” Beatty continued. After a competitive application process, four artists (Ivy Baldwin, Yanira Castrow, Susan Marshall, and Dana Ruttenberg) were chosen to participate in a residency at Barnard and presented a show at Symphony Space on October 10. Additionally, WAX will continue its core Waxworks, which “makes it accessible to produce your work for relatively nothing,” said Associate Director Jackie Moynahan. “Waxworks is a place for those just starting out. We create a low-risk container for people to network and experiment.” This come-one-come-all attitude has been a trademark of Waxworks since its inception in 2000.

Moynahan and Beatty realize that, if they want to remain in their Brooklyn neighborhood, they cannot rest on their laurels. So, as part of the Williamsburg Performance Alliance, they spend time and resources advocating for the arts in Williamsburg. “It’s about collectively recognizing the wealth of artistic offerings to our neighborhood and staking our claim here,” said Beatty, “The WPA is paying attention to the gentrification of Williamsburg. Historically, this neighborhood has been a breeding ground for the arts in New York, and we want to remain a part of Williamsburg as it changes.” At least for now, WAX is back in Williamsburg, and as Moynahan describes, “It feels like a little home.”

Contributor

Catherine Massey

CATHERINE MASSEY writes about dance and lives in Manhattan. She is a graduate student at NYU.

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