Danceletter 8

If you happen to follow me on Twitter you may know that one of my current obsessions, in a wish-it-didn’t-exist kind of way, is Hudson Yards, the new $25 billion development on the far west side of Manhattan. I’ve spent a lot of time reading and vigorously agreeing with take after withering take on this characterless, dubiously financed non-neighborhood, site of the city’s newest, most buzzed about, and most… retractably roofed performance/art space, the Shed.

I’m not here to offer an in-depth critique of the gargantuan misdirection of resources that is Hudson Yards. Other writers have already done this really well. But I have been trying to understand, for myself, the heart-sinking feeling I get when I think about this not-even-that-nice new office park/mall and its roughly $500 million visual and performing arts building.

For all my skepticism and sullen tweets, I do want to keep an open mind about the Shed. I haven’t actually seen a show there yet — except for the bureaucratic spectacle of the April 3 press preview — and when I do, I might like it! I’m wary of dismissing the work that will happen there based on my misgivings about the place itself.

But the place... As I sit here wondering why I’m even writing this, since I really have nothing to say beyond what’s been said, I keep returning to a simple question: What is the Shed really adding to the cultural landscape of New York, except for an admittedly unique retractable outer shell that allows for indoor and outdoor performances?

At the press preview, vice chair of the board Jonathan M. Tisch was the first to take a stab at articulating what sets the Shed apart, offering that some institutions (he didn’t say which) “tend to be about the past,” while “the Shed…is about the future.” It wasn’t the only time I wondered, through the morning’s many speeches: Is that… all you’ve got?

Artistic director and CEO Alex Poots elaborated on what the future might look like. He spoke of a nonhierarchical place that welcomes “all kinds of artists and therefore all kinds of audiences,” a place without borders between “emerging,” “established,” and “community” artists, categories he invoked more than once in his remarks. (If the Shed is indeed so boundary-less, why use these labels at all?) Backpedalling on his enthusiasm for one high-profile event, he clarified: “Scale doesn’t make it better; it just happens to be a larger show.”

To its credit the Shed really is providing a platform for so-called emerging artists, with an “Open Call” program featuring 52 New York-based artists and collectives; commissioning fees for this program range from $7,000 to $15,000. And as part of the effort to welcome “all kinds of audiences,” 10% of tickets, for all performances, will be reserved for low-income New Yorkers. The Shed has also partnered with public schools and community centers to offer FlexNYC, a “free, citywide residency program in dance activism,” according to its website.

These are admirable initiatives. But to echo a question that others have raised: What if the hundreds of millions funneled into the Shed went toward supporting existing, underfunded programs and artists and organizations, those doing similar work yet more deeply embedded in their communities? I think Ben Davis of Artnet said it best when he wrote:

…if you are a very rich person and are going to fund empowerment of diverse communities through an arts organization, I am not sure why you’d do it through a glittering brand-new one on the West Side, rather than through one of the thousands of local, culturally specific nonprofits dispersed across the city, which are starved for funding from both city and private donors in New York’s desperately asymmetrical, over-centralized landscape of mega-institutions and mega-donors. The Shed, both despite and because of its rhetoric of doing good, adds another ultra-extra-mega-institution to compete with for money and favor.

You could give to those littler, long-standing organizations—but then you wouldn’t get to meet Steve McQueen or Bjork or have your name on the cool Transformer building. Glamor is the price of trickle-down social justice.

A novel building also does little to offset the precarious state in which many New York artists exist. As the choreographer Annie-B Parson wrote in 2014, in an essay about the privileging of buildings over the performers who work in them, “Capital projects seem to attract millions of dollars, but a decent wage for people who sing and dance and act is somehow ‘too expensive.’” (See also Zachary Woolfe’s “How the Shed Can Live Up to Its Hype: Focus on the Artists.”)

What can be done beyond feeling disgruntled and wishing “if only…”? For starters: Continue to support the performance spaces, old and new, that may not have Shed-level resources or flexible-agile-responsive-adaptable architecture but that feed (and have fed) the cultural ecology of New York, that make this city an interesting place to live. For the last day of my class, Dance in New York City, I drew up a list of “small-to-medium NYC dance spaces.” If you’d like a copy, let me know — and I’m sure it’s incomplete, so I’d appreciate any additions.

From the Internet

Katy Pyle, founder of the queer-inclusive ballet company Ballez, recently unveiled Ballez Class Everywhere, a free online series allowing people around the world to connect with their affirming approach to teaching ballet. Joined by fellow Ballez members, Pyle takes viewers through 12 short exercises, from warm-up up to “dégagés & butch nod” to révérence.

For BOMB Magazine, Rachel Stone talks to Pam Tanowitz, in an interview that includes, among other gems, a look at Pam’s actual calendar.

Shows to See

Some last-minute suggestions for this weekend: Tatyana Tenenbaum and Jasmine Hearn at Danspace Project (through Saturday); Colleen Thomas Dance at La MaMa (through Sunday); “In Conversation with Merce,” curated by Rashaun Mitchell and featuring new works by Moriah Evans, Mina Nishimura, and Netta Yerushalmy, at Skirball (through Saturday); and Sunday Service, organized by Yanira Castra with work by Martita Abril, Rosana Cabán, Cori Olinghouse, Alexis Ruiseco Lombera, and Tara Sheena, at the Knockdown Center.

What You’re Watching

Thanks to everyone who sent their favorite dance vids! I’ll start with the first one that came in, from Nancy Dalva, Merce Cunningham scholar and producer of the series Mondays with Merce. She returns to this “time and again,” she writes, “just to be in the room with Valda.”

Keep the submissions coming. And thanks for reading.

Siobhan