Iconic Building Saved
An iconic arts building is saved: Houston's humble dance barn gets a new dramatic future
I parted with both my childhood home and the home I raised my own children in within a period of six months, so you bet I have something to say about the process of saying farewell to a set of treasured walls and moving on to new digs.
Space is on my mind because there are new developments in arts spaces right here in Houston. In June, The Houston Metropolitan Dance Center moves into its fancy new Caroline digs. Catastrophic Theatre moved into the DiverseWorks' old warehouse digs and Houston City Dance Studio has moved from Rice Village to the River Oaks Shopping area. More moves are in planning stages.
"I remember being underwhelmed the first time I saw the place. I think that is everyone's reaction the first time they see it from the outside."
But the most dramatic space shift occurred when Jennifer Wood, of Suchu Dance, handed over the keys to Barnevelder, Houston's leading dance hub, to Dance Source Houston (DSH), the city's nationally recognized service organization. When I think of all the dance I have seen in the past decade, most of it occurred under Barnevelder's humble roof. It wasn't named after a sturdy chicken breed for nothing.
The Hand Off
"I'm proud and happy that DSH was here, ready and willing to pick up the mantle to save this dance home and hub," says Christina Giannelli, DSH founder and board president. "It's so important to assure that this amazing resource for performing artists continues. It would have left a huge hole to lose it. Our goal is to keep it up and running."
For the past 12 years, Barnevelder was the space to see contemporary dance, the home of the Big Range Dance Festival, as well as an affordable venue for rehearsals and workshops. The space was utilized by the theater companies, such as Classical Theatre, Mildred's Umbrella and Divergence Vocal Theater. The shift in management to Dance Source Houston made sense all round. The organization will graduate from Houston Arts Alliance's incubator program in September, and needed an office.
"We were literally finishing building the sprung floor as the audience was walking in."
Plus, Dance Source is increasing its scope and visibility, so it's time to have an actual place to hold and manage events.
Still, the shift came with some emotional pain.
"Moving on from Barnevelder has not been an easy decision, but a necessary one," says Wood, who built the space with Louie Salatan as a home for Suchu Dance and the community. "Having been in that space for 13 years I feel Barnevelder has come to define the art we create and produce. I'm proud of all the work and struggle that went into creating Barnevelder, and of all the wonderful work that was created and performed there, not just by my company, but by so many people from Houston and around the country and other parts of the world.
"I'm glad that it will continue to serve its purpose while I explore other adventures."
Suchu Dance hosted The Dance Gathering on Saturday, and be finishing out its season there with Bosk, from June 7 to 22. Wood will be traveling to Italy for a festival in Sorrento, and collaborate with Mildred's Umbrella for a kid's dance camp at Studio 101.
Some Barn History
Some 13 years ago, dance fans were summoned to an old industrial air conditioning company and asked to imagine it as a space for dance. The cement floor was slopped. I don't recall any heat or air conditioning, and there was a guy dressed as a chicken. I left thinking, "Good luck with that."
"I remember being underwhelmed the first time I saw the place," recalls Wood. "I think that is everyone's reaction the first time they see it from the outside."
"It was built by the blood, sweat and tears of many. I hope we can increase that sense of shared ownership as we move forward."
Wood remembers those early days. "Where the theater is now was an area where they would dip giant air conditioners in huge vats of acid," she says. "What is now the lobby was divided into a bunch of small offices with smelly green carpet.
"What is now studio B was a big workroom with oil on the floor and dirt and tools and a big pillar in the middle."
Wood, known for her wit, created a site-specific performance in the space as a way to introduce the public to her idea of building a theater, leaving everything as it was when the previous tenants left.
"The dance led the audience through the entire space, from the tiny rooms, to the oily work room and into the huge metal building with the garage doors," she says. "What is now the secret performers' bathroom was originally there but it wasn't tucked into a dark hallway like it is now. We concluded this site-specific piece by having the dancers, probably eight to 10 of them, all cram into this tiny bathroom and flush."
The official first performance was Eight Flying Dogs. "We were literally finishing building the sprung floor as the audience was walking in," Wood says.
She went on to create more than 40 works in the space, while numerous local troupes used the theater for their shows. Lighting, mobile seating, showers and a spiffed-up lobby were added. Wood filled the space with dance, and for that, we should be thankful.
The future looks bright for Barnevelder. Dance Source Houston executive director Stephanie Wong would like Houston to know that Barnevelder is open for business. "Choice dates are available," she says. "There's been a lot of interest."
A devoted crowd of dance lovers showed up on Sunday for a clean up day, and a benefit "Barn Raising" dance concert is planned for May.
For Wong, the move is a smart one, allowing the organization to offer more benefits to the community. She's been busy looking at other models across the nation for guidance and ideas.
"We've always been a virtual hub," she says. "Now we will be a physical one as well."
Although the space has been linked to Suchu, it always had a feeling of shared ownership.
"It was built by the blood, sweat and tears of many," Wong says. "I hope we can increase that sense of shared ownership as we move forward. I want to create a safe haven for artists to play, explore and create."