Embodied Construction: Building a Home for Dance
“Tell Pepper the doorbell isn’t working, so you’ll need to let your people in,” said a woman in a purple suit. She stood on the steps of Cadman Memorial Church (CMC), a regal, Romanesque structure on the corner of Clinton and Lafayette Avenues. The impressive stone facade, however, concealed a crumbling interior.
Where some might see decay, Pepper Fajans of Brooklyn Studios for Dance (BKSD) saw possibility through community. CMC’s main sanctuary functions for the active congregation (of which the woman in the purple suit is a member) but the building’s less-used extensions suffer from serious need of repair. In January 2015, Fajans began a massive renovation of CMC that included the addition of dance classes, performance space, a garden, and community gatherings.
Fajans holds a unique background. He has worked with dance companies and dancers (for professional and personal projects) Merce Cunningham, New York Theatre Ballet, David Vaughan, David Gordon, and Sara Rudner, among others. “Working at Cunningham, I interacted on as many realms as possible, taking class, assisting Merce, and in production. I’ve learned to be a one-man band.”
His interest in such an ambitious undertaking stems from the desire to “reinvest effort, so its value is embedded in experience without the complications of financial endeavors.” How does this investment work? Fajans has long believed that “if the space would manifest, the community [of dance] could join.” During a five-week transformation of the space, Fajans and his team fixed the cathedral ceiling, brightened the walls with about 80 gallons of paint, and manufactured a sprung floor.
In the field of dance, a doorbell suggests the luxury of space. Efforts to build a sustainable model to maintain an artistic “home” continually circle back to funding. Impassioned artists and theaters tend to rely on two or three major donors (individual or foundation). Should one of those pillars realign their priorities, the structure completely shifts. In the tightly-wound network of dance, the impact of irregular resources complicates everything from ticket fees to rehearsal space. Or in other words: the necessary components to support art making.
Fajans and other Brooklyn-based artists want to turn this structure on its head. Andrea Miller of Gallim Dance operates within The Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew, while choreographer Ron K. Brown recently moved his company, Evidence, to the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Center for Arts and Culture.
In activating the space, BKSD joined with ClassClassClass (CCC), a curated class series dedicated to developing artistic practice through the student-teacher relationship. Co-organizer Tatyana Tenenbaum cites CCC’s inherent “community of practice” as well as its commitment to “recycling and deconstructing process.” Its history of operations includes grassroots locations and artist-run studios such as Chez Bushwick, Center for Performance Research, Brazil, The Woods, and Barn. The teaching roster remains diverse in age and experience, and includes Michelle Boulé, Jumatutu Poe, and Lydia Mokdessi, among others.
Despite the rapid increase of MFA programs for dancers, artists are not entering the field prepared to teach. Opportunities to develop their teaching craft come at a price—their own. CCC fills that gap. Current teacher Jules Skloot shared excitement for the accessibility of the structure. The two-hour classes “give our ideas the necessary time and space. We’re not focused on getting in and out of the studio for the next class, or worried about our pay rate based on class attendance.” Veteran CCC teacher Mariana Valencia appreciates the certainty of just “knowing I’m going to teach. Even if it is one person, I’m going to be able to explore my work.” Fellow teacher Katy Pyle felt inspired to work with the range of students and experiences people bring into class with CCC. As teachers, “we navigate vulnerability.”
Class sizes are usually small, affirming Tenenbaum’s (and co-organizers Lindsay Reuter and Alice MacDonald) come-as-you-are philosophy. “We say yes to every student, and what they can do,” said Reuter. CCC organizers recognize the relationship between a stable location and attendance. CCC is “finding our landscape as we move forward. There is certainly potential for failure. But we’re changing the attitude, the mindset of incubating a program through community partnerships,” said Tenenbaum.
There is a bulletin board in the entryway designated for BKSD that proclaims, “Lord, order my steps.” A serendipitous validation for the dancers in residence at CMC, it also alludes to the vulnerable state of dance and its dependence on higher powers. Subsumed by their art, dancers and choreographers must mend their own missteps. There are no bailouts. But BKSD’s subversion of the structure offers hope.
MELISSA CROUSHORN is a dance historian, educator, and writer with a twitter addiction (@macflicflac).