Up Space, Down Space: Moving Dancers of New York

A–Y/dancers performing Sour by Hannah Garner. Photo: Margrit Wenzel.

New York City, both in government and community, has a long history of seeing dance companies through to their fullest form of identity. After the formation of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965, there was a “dance boom.” Support and interest in dance—from the popular heights of Alvin Ailey to tiny, local companies—thrived in the ’70s and ’80s, petering out in the ’90s. Currently, New York’s dance funding landscape looks barren in comparison. Recent initiatives like Dance/NYC’s Dance Advancement Fund have sought to remedy this and support small-budget companies. Last month, the initiative put out a call for consultant researchers to investigate the equitable distribution, progress, and needs of developing dance groups in the city. However, the lack of official opportunities in the city begets crammed and competitive dance spaces.

Maintaining career momentum within New York’s dance scene is a trial even for seasoned pros. But young dancers face the challenge of stepping into that scene, and seem to have taken matters into their own hands. While there’s been a flourish of big name choreographers and residencies cropping up in Upstate New York—Stephen Petronio and Jonah Bokaer, among others— emerging, local groups are also looking upstate for space and solitude to rehearse. A complimentary community of artists and volunteers orbiting the city are dedicated to seeing these dancers practice and perform. I reconnected with some dancer friends to see how they’re sustaining their art.

Looking Upstate

I saw the A-Y/dancers perform during my time as a student at SUNY Purchase, where the company members met one another. Purchase College is a diverse, New York state arts school in Westchester County with a prolific dance program. Its Performing Arts Center hosts international touring dance groups and was even the site for the filming of the ballet-centric movie Black Swan. The school also acts as a testing ground for student groups and new styles of movement.

When I first watched the members of A-Y perform, they improvised fluidly, adding their own ethereal vibration to choreographed works. Alongside their peers, I witnessed the development of their craft transform raw technical skill into interpretive insight. A-Y’s members are all female. They are traditionally and experimentally trained dancers with international backgrounds. The group’s mission: to make modern and contemporary dance from the city accessible in Beacon, New York. Some members live in Brooklyn. Some live in Beacon. Others travel the world. Only recently has this company come together to rehearse and perform.

Whether the dancers would find a way to pursue their collective artistic dream professionally was unclear in college. But their innovative methodology has carried them far already. Their senior year of college, the A-Y leadership met about a theoretical dance group they wanted to start in the Hudson Valley. Not yet rehearsing as a company, the dancers decided they needed to pick pieces to perform as a first step.

But dancers and dance pieces a company does not make: the issue of rehearsal space remained. So they created that space. “Part of why we started this was feeling like a lot of the options for dance were not great options,” founding member Erin Landers, 24, from Oakland, CA said. “So we wanted another choice of what to do.” She now lives in Brooklyn.

A-Y/dancers performing Sour by Hannah Garner. Photo: Margrit Wenzel.

Adding house-sitting exchanges to what little grant money they had, the A-Y/dancers arranged residencies in the woods of Reading, Connecticut and a studio in Beacon, New York. “It makes it feasible and affordable to [work in] places like that,” said founding member Sienna Blaw, 24, from Austin, TX. She also now lives in Brooklyn.

A-Y completed rehearsals for the pieces in about three months. Claire Deane, 24, from New Rochelle, NY had danced in Beacon in 2015. By the end of summer 2017, before they even knew about the grant or residencies, A-Y had used a public art initiative called Windows on Main Street to dance on a lawn in Beacon. “Everyone had the thought: see they care about dance here!” Deane said.

Deane booked a show for the company at the Howland Cultural Center in Beacon, NY and set the date for their first show. A modern and contemporary repertory dance company was born.

A-Y/dancers performed their first set of pieces at the Howland Center in October 2018, including an abstract piece entitled Of The Earth Far Below, by renowned choreographer and Doug Varone, who has personally worked with the company. With darting movements and stark black outfits, the piece brings to life the chaotic nature of existence in tumultuous times. Truly an imagist piece, Of The Earth Far Below is a shadowy abstraction, transporting the viewer into a trance-like meditation.

The dancers’ goal is to stay on a roll. “Being self-sustaining would be really huge,” Landers said. After their October show in Beacon, the dancers were invited to perform at Factory Arts Space in Brooklyn where they performed an original piece choreographed by an A-Y dancer, Hannah Garner, entitled Sour. The piece involved barbershop striped outfits, lemons passed around among dancers like a relay baton, and spoken word poetry taking up environmental themes. The third piece A-Y performed was accompanied by free-improvisational live music featuring conducted tenor and bari sax, drum set, and vocals. A-Y/dancers are performing their entire repertoire in Kingston, NY on April 26, 27, and 28, 2019.

Moving to the City

Many dance organizations share A-Y / dancers’ mission to connect upstate and downstate. Beyond college hubs like Purchase or Bard, residencies and artist-run spaces like the LUMBERYARD, Kaatsbaan International Dance Center, and Mt. Tremper arts help facilitate channels of dance between the city and outposts upstate. The LUMBERYARD operates a dance residency in the Catskills and launched the LUMBERYARD In The City Festival two years ago.

As coordinators know too well, maintaining space for dance can be a finicky operation. Dance studios must be temperature controlled, the floor must have proper traction and not too much buoyancy, among other important traits. Luckily, more artist-run opportunities are cropping up.

Chelsea Ainsworth, 30, originally from Raleigh NC, and her husband, Kyle Netzeband, 33 from Vail, CO, run a program called Arts on Site. I spoke with Netzeband over the phone about what the couple had been working on after the A-Y dancers pointed me their way.

“We recognized that living in the city is an inspiring place for artists to be, but the pace of life can be demanding on the health of an individual,” Netzeband said. “A space away from the distractions of the city to focus on your ideas is integral to the development of artists.” The couple met working through Artists Striving to End Poverty, a Juilliard nonprofit initiative.

Arts on Site now hosts roughly 100-person performance parties on St. Marks place in Manhattan every third Saturday of the month. A rotating cast of participants from a pool of about 3,000 renting and performing visual artists, musicians, and dancers fuels the performances. But the expansion of the program has not stopped there.

Arts on Site began formulating plans for a residency program. With a combination of a personal injury settlement and grant money, they were able to begin hall-hunting. Netzeband and Ainsworth were originally looking for property in Beacon, but fate intervened. They found a once trashed, abandoned former excavation and paving company. The infrastructure of such a site lent itself well to artists in need of a breath of fresh air. The artist duo turned a long, red barn into a warm dance space and furnished yurts in the woods for dancer housing. With massive volunteer support, the couple turned the property bordering Minnewaska State Park into a fully furnished retreat. Kyle reflected on what it’s been like in the volunteer-restored space. “When an artist shows up there’s the big sigh,” he said.

One of these artists is Doron Perk from Israel. Perk, 28, met Netzeband and Ainsworth on tour with Zzi Gothheimer’s company and eventually helped with the space on St. Marks. Perk’s fledgling partnership with Arts on Site—first in the city and then upstate—lead to new horizons for the location of his artistic practice and for the art itself. “I didn’t freelance before I came to New York, so I think it’s very unique to have both settings,” Perk said. He spoke about the difference between residencies abroad versus in the community in and above New York. “You’re not always building a community back home. Whereas here, you really get to do that.”

Photo: Umi Akiyoshi

Contributor

MG Lee

is a former breaking news reporter now writing about the arts from Brooklyn. To keep up with their coverage of music, dance, and poetry follow on Twitter @M_G_Lee.

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