"When I get my career off the ground, I'm going to perform in this alley," I told my brother some three decades ago. The pathetic part is that I wasn't kidding.
That alley was eventually officially named "Dance Alley," even though the venue was forced into an even more marginal area. During my dancing life, I performed in all manner of hovels, ramshackle spaces and places that the fire marshal deemed not fit for the public (fine for dancers though).
New buildings and arts organizations make a touchy subject. Putting money into bricks and mortar has bankrupted many a theater company in this nation. But I was the one getting defensive if anyone gave me grief about Houston Ballet's new digs. I would ask, "Have you ever been in C.C. Conner's office when the men are jumping? Houston Ballet needed a new building to match the level of their national stature. Let's get on it with." And they did.
As a card carrying-citizen of Planet Houston dance, I take pride in that shiny new structure. My name is scribbled on the last steel beam, along with those of the staff, the company and members of the entire Houston Ballet community. I walked into the building with the company for the first time, and watched their very first plie. Company class may have been business as usual, yet I imagine the day stirred many a dancer to wonder, "I work here?"
Here's a question: How do you know how society values you based on the buildings you work in? I set off on a pilgrimage to find out.
I nearly fell over crossing 55th Street, when I first laid eyes on the Joan A. Weill Center for Dance, home of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Ailey II and The Ailey School in New York City. It's that impressive. Large windows allow you to gaze on all kinds of dancing. Light and airy, if buildings could breath, this one does.
The in-house theater has perfect sight lines for dance, too. I like to pop in every time I'm in New York and feel in a "dance is in the dumps" mood. I perk right up as I imagine the some 5,000 students do who train yearly in the 77,000-square-foot facility. It's a dance monument, if I have ever seen one.
I ventured over to Center For Performance Research, Brooklyn's first L.E.E.D. Certified green building of its kind. The award-winning lab offers affordable space for performance and rehearsal along with innovative programing. Developed by Jonah Bokaer and John Jasperse, the 4,000-square-foot space is a mixed-use residential and commercial condominium that also houses a non-profit community arts facility on the ground floor. It's one smart way of having a place to develop your work.
Bokaer and Jasperse, two seminal American dance makers, built the studio's floor themselves. I had to think about that for a minute. You should too.
I promised I would drive by Ballet Austin for a brief chat with their artistic director Stephen Mills last year when Dominic Walsh was featured in the troupe's New American Talent program Two hours later, I was still there, entranced by the tale of how executive director Cookie Ruiz granted Mills' wish of finding a downtown location.
Today, the Butler Dance Education Center houses two schools, Ballet Austin's Academy, The Butler Community School, along with the professional company and Ballet Austin II, who just happen to be performing Thang Dao's Quiet Imprint in Houston on Saturday at the Hobby Center. The building is glamorous, a total looker, just teaming with motion and so welcoming.
If a building could say, "Hey, come on in," this one does. No wonder I didn't want to leave — that and everyone's warm Texas hospitality.
Sam Houston State & Others
There are buildings I have written about but have yet to visit, like ODC's The Dance Commons in San Francisco, Mark Morris Dance Group's Brooklyn-based The Dance Center, Joffrey Ballet's Joffrey Tower in Chicago and Booker T. Washington's High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas' sleek new arts district. I'd like to see Atlanta Ballet's snazzy new place as well.
My most recent visit was to Sam Houston State University's new James & Nancy Gaertner Performing Arts Center, which opened this past fall. I was there to visit classes, catch up with the faculty and review their inaugural concert in The Dance Gallery, built especially for dance. The building is graceful, there is no other way to explain it. A dramatic James Surls sculpture fills the atrium of this spacious facility, which encourages students of various disciplines to mix and mingle.
Dana E. Nicolay, associate dean and professor of dance, treated me to an in-depth tour. As a key person in the planning process, Nicolay could explain the thought behind every decision in elaborate detail. The pride he exuded was palpable. We lingered for a long while, watching classes through the expansive windows.
The experience of a new space is considerably different for those who endured the difficulties of the dance department's former quarters than for freshmen, who have only known this elegant place.
Even though I already knew the answer to my question, I couldn't resist asking. "Do you think it affects dancers' self esteem to learn in a building like this?" The look in Nicolay's eyes told me everything I needed to know.
His comments made me think about the Summer Intensive students who will enter Houston Ballet's building soon and never know anything different. This will be their first impression of Houston Ballet.
If buildings could talk, this one is whispering, "You are valued."
Get a taste of the dancing going on at Sam Houston State University