In the late afternoon of February 4th, the Baryshnikov Arts Center (BAC) was noisy, dusty, and filled with construction workers going about their business. The sense of urgency in the Hell’s Kitchen building was palpable, and with good reason. The new Jerome Robbins Theater, named after the iconic 20th century Broadway and ballet choreographer, would officially open at the gala event happening just twelve days later, and was still under heavy construction. The gala promised a lineup of performances by Mikhail Baryshnikov (BAC’s artistic director), Wendy Sutter, Garrison Keillor, Benjamin Millepied’s Danses Concertantes, and members of New York City Ballet, all of whom were undoubtedly busy rehearsing for the event. But if the highly anticipated theater were not completed, nobody would have the chance to grace the stage with their presence.
BAC’s executive director, Stanford Makishi, seemed undaunted and surprisingly upbeat about the busy days ahead. The gala, he explained, was not only a celebration of the new theater, but also a turning point for BAC and the types of programming, creative residencies, and performances it can offer. His enthusiasm was apparent as he ducked under some equipment and pointed out the theater’s new walls and some features in the small balcony. Although it will be “a very intimate space” with just 238 seats, the Jerome Robbins Theater will have the trappings of a much larger theater.
Until now, BAC only had black box spaces with sixteen-foot ceilings, but the Jerome Robbins Theater allows for performances with more technical demands, and can accommodate the needs of artists from various disciplines. The theater’s acoustics make it an ideal setting for live music, and stretching 43 feet across, the stage is larger than that of BAC’s other spaces and is therefore suitable for larger performance ensembles. Sight lines are excellent from all viewpoints, and the balcony is positioned low enough that the audience still feels close to the performers. Furthermore, the theater will be LEED-certified for sustainable design and construction—a rare and praiseworthy accomplishment for a New York City performing arts venue.
The idea for the new theater, according to Makishi, was “a glimmer in Misha’s [Baryshnikov’s] eye” when ground was first broken for BAC in 2001. But it was not until February of 2007 that BAC signed a letter of agreement to purchase “Theater C,” as the space was called, from the consortium within the building that owned the three theaters at the site. The purchase was completed in November 2008, and with generous support from the Jerome Robbins Foundation, “Theater C” would be renovated and renamed the Jerome Robbins Theater.
Makishi explained that Baryshnikov imagined the new theater as a unique opportunity for both performers and the audience. Only time will tell if the public appreciates and flocks to BAC for the chance to attend performances in the Jerome Robbins Theater, but so far, artists have certainly embraced the space for its possibilities. Experimental theater company the Wooster Group will open the first season as resident company of the theater on March 10th, with a revival of North Atlantic, which takes a satiric look at the role of the military and technology during the late Cold War period, after Vietnam, and before the fall of the Berlin Wall. After the Wooster Group’s six-week run in the theater, the Swiss duo Martin Zimmermann and Dimitri de Perrot (choreographer and DJ, respectively) will present the U.S. premiere of Gaff Aff. A continuously shifting work that explores the human being as marionette, curio, and illusionist, Gaff Aff runs May 4-8.
While the Jerome Robbins Theater will undoubtedly broaden BAC’s programming, there are still other spaces that will be utilized for dance, music, theater, and film. Blending their use of live camera work, animation, and surrealism, Bridgman/Packer Dance will present the world premiere of Double Expose on March 25th in BAC’s Howard Gilman Performance Space. In April, Makishi is looking forward to welcoming Trisha Brown Dance Company (TBDC) to BAC to celebrate its 40th anniversary. Their performances are particularly meaningful to him because they will perform Opal Loop/Cloud Installation # 72503, a rarely seen work that Makishi, a former TBDC dancer, performed with the company when it celebrated its 25th anniversary at Brooklyn Academy of Music.
With the launch of the new Jerome Robbins Theater, along with the Howard Gilman Performance Space and other studios, BAC is well positioned to offer myriad opportunities to artists looking for performance and rehearsal space (twenty artists hold creative residencies in BAC’s studios throughout the spring). Moreover, BAC has the potential to be a vibrant destination for audiences seeking a diverse range of performing arts.