Sugary Deals, Dissolving Dance Troupes and the Riddle of Accessibility


On the Uneasy Partnerships Between Real Estate and Art

By Robert Johnson

One morning in July, shortly after the closing of the exhibition “A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby” at the Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, I was listening to WBAI, where the host, Michael G. Haskins, had invited listeners to phone-in their reactions to the art. The monumental statue, 35-feet tall and long enough to fill a warehouse, depicted a woman crouching on all fours and clothed only in the headscarf of a plantation worker. While this woman’s features pointed to her origins in Africa she was covered in sugar and blindingly white, reflecting the history of the industry in which she labored.

The artist, Kara Walker, who was inspired by the sugar-paste “subtleties” that adorned Renaissance banquet tables, placed her subtlety in the posture of a sphinx — riddling and ready to pounce. This cautionary sex symbol was also anatomically explicit. Some visitors who may have been tired from standing in line, or who may have felt gleeful when they discovered an image that didn’t conform to their expectations, were prompted to behave in ways that Haskins interpreted as disrespectful.

The callers to the radio program were clearly not the same lighthearted bunch who had gathered beneath “Sugar Baby’s” colossal vagina to make rude gestures and snap selfies. These early-morning callers sounded thoughtful, educated and polite. The on-air conversations were swimming smoothly — a testament to a culture of civility so ingrained it awakes to enlightened discourse before the first cup of coffee — when a gentleman rang who adopted a less amiable tone. After mumbling something about Socialist Realism, he described the “Sugar Baby” artist’s work as “collaboration” with the gentrification that would, in this case, turn the old Domino Sugar Factory into upscale condominiums and a waterfront park. This was a subtlety too far, and Haskins invited the caller, who may have been unemployed and so not thinking clearly, to phone back another day. Some riddles the sphinx poses are more vexing than others.

The disgruntled man’s remarks had already caught my attention, however, since a month earlier I had written an article promoting the dance performances at the River To River Festival in Lower Manhattan  and on Governor’s Island. While offering the artists who participated in the festival welcome exposure to the public, these performances, sponsored by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and its dance-loving president, Sam Miller, were also implicated in a real-estate scheme. They were designed to lure culturally sophisticated (i.e., wealthy) audiences into parts of the city earmarked for development but still blighted in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. One of the dance events, featuring Wally Cardona, Jennifer Lacey and Balinese “topeng” master I Nyoman Catra, would be choreographed and presented in an empty storefront awaiting its next tenant.

I’m always happy to alert newspaper readers to the opportunity of seeing a dance performance — especially when the performance is free. And while I’ve covered the River To River Festival several times in the course of my career as a dance journalist, something about this year’s lineup made me uncomfortable. I know what it was. It was the festival’s spotlight on the Trisha Brown Dance Company, which would reprise Brown’s farewell piece “I’m going to toss my arms — if you catch them they’re yours” outdoors on an East River pier. When this dance made its local debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last year, the atmosphere was despairing. Wind generated by industrial fans added an extra kinetic dimension to the dancers’ movement, but as in certain pieces choreographed by Susan Marshall the wind also rushed past like our fugitive hours and days heightening our awareness of time’s passage. It suggested a sinister and implacable force bent on wiping the stage clean. In a related event, the River To River Festival sponsored an exhibition on Governor’s Island that recreated Brown’s piece “The Stream,” which was originally performed in 1970 inviting passerby in Union Square to become participants. The show highlighted Brown’s seminal role in placing dance in dialogue with the urban environment.

The Trisha Brown Dance Company is one of America’s most distinguished arts institutions, yet since its announcement in 2013 that the choreographer is too ill to continue working, the troupe has been struggling to survive. So why is it, I asked myself bitterly, that the most a presenter with the very best intentions can do is to offer this ensemble a single performance date and a temporary exhibition — provided, of course, they act as shills for commercial interests? And leaving Trisha Brown aside, what about all the dancers searching for studio space and affordable housing? Don’t the inspired bodies who contribute so much to the economy and to the quality of life in our cities deserve to make their homes here?

Devising ephemeral amusements may be a profitable sideline, but if that’s all we allow artists to do — if their major works endure no longer than the table decorations at a patron’s feast — then their reputations will also melt away and they will leave no monuments for humanity to ponder. This is why a great sculptor like Michelangelo is still revered, while a great choreographer like Salvatore Viganò is barely remembered. Artists are not party planners whose principal responsibility is tacking up colorful bunting for the next Grand Opening. Yet, for choreographers, at least, a pitiless wind is blowing.

Evidently the deal-making that goes on between artists and developers is not newThe deal-making that goes on between artists and developers is not new.. During a phone interview in 2002, Liz Thompson, a distinguished dance presenter and former director of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, described to me her narrow escape from the collapsing Twin Towers on 9/11, and explained the role of David Rockefeller Sr. and Chase Manhattan Bank in creating the LMCC. Their goal was to jump-start residential development by introducing art into the neighborhood around the World Trade Center, including a dance series called the Evening Stars Festival. Ever since then, the destruction wrought on 9/11 and the commercial agenda behind these LMCC-sponsored events have been linked in my mind, followed by a question mark.

Many choreographers, of course, are intrigued by the possibilities of creating site-specific work, and some — Eiko and Koma, Noémie Lafrance or Sarah Skaggs, for instance — have gladly taken their work outdoors where the public could encounter it by chance and where the exchange of ideas and impressions is as free as the breeze. I remember Eiko and Koma’s wonderful “Caravan Project,” in 1999, when opposite sides of a U-Haul trailer stationed in New York’s Bryant Park offered passersby visions of different “biospheres.” Another stunning piece was Lafrance’s “MELT,” in 2010, where women dripping beeswax and lanolin hung suspended from a cinderblock wall in a salt shed below the Manhattan Bridge. Lafrance managed to combine statements about the consuming nature of passion with a warning about the threat of climate change. The following year Skaggs commemorated the 10th anniversary of the Twin Towers’ destruction with her “9/11 Dance — a Roving Memorial,” in which dancers “embedded” in a thoroughfare would suddenly drop their anonymity and perform like a flashmob. Skaggs’ idea was to diminish the fear and suspicion that have taken possession of our public spaces since the terrorist attack.

Artists and real-estate developers make strange dance partners, however. The relationship seems laden with irony if we consider the historic role that real-estate and other commercial concerns have played in uprooting city dwellers and supplanting the society that rewards its members with ready access to theatrical events. By now a series of books from “Crabgrass Frontier” and “The Geography of Nowhere” to Dolores Hayden’s “Building Suburbia” have thoroughly documented the demographic shift that took place in our country during the previous century. In a process incentivized by low introductory costs and brochures marketing “the American Dream,” and super-charged by racism and by the fear of poverty, middle-class American families fled our city centers to purchase single-family homes increasingly distant from the city, with middle-class blacks following the whites. What these excellent studies neglect to point out is the effect that this mighty displacement of the population has had on Americans’ evolving attitudes toward the arts. Although the topic is not picayune, I have yet to see it addressed.

“Accessibility” has become a shibboleth among performing arts presenters, suggesting rather contemptuously that Americans lack the curiosity and intelligence to apprehend the “subtleties” of art, and that artists inhabit a rarefied environment like an ivory tower from which they make scant effort to hail or engage the public. This line of reasoning ignores the fact that Americans lack access to the arts in a more practical way. Artists often do live apart from the mass of society, but not so much because of their attitudes or concerns — they’re people, like the rest of us — as because the geographic center of our culture has shifted. The absence of artistic institutions in the winding culs-de sac and so-called “bedroom” communities where most Americans now live effectively erases the arts from the public’s consciousness. At the same time, the distances that must be covered and the inconveniences that must be overcome to reach live performances place them beyond the horizon for most. That includes the still sizable population whose notion of culture (“memory” of culture might be more accurate) extends beyond the juvenile antics of “So You Think You Can Dance?”

Our country is no less intelligent than it was before suburbanization and no less in need of the self-examination and communion the arts can provide. Our country is no less intelligent than it was before suburbanization and no less in need of the self-examination and communion the arts can provide. At a time when businesses demand more and more of their employees, however, it is simply too complicated, too wearisome and too expensive for most Americans to get back in the car and drive to the theater after they have already been obliged to commute to and from work. That goes for theaters on ex-urban college campuses as well as for the opera houses and converted movie palaces in traditional downtowns. Arts education is often touted as a remedy for cultural illiteracy and disinterest in the arts, but no amount of schooling can counteract the realities of demographic dispersal and cultural entropy. It’s not the artists, nor the public, but the automobile that is to blame.

As a further result, television, which remains the dominant medium of cultural transmission in America, no longer reflects the artistic values of our urban centers, but now simply admires its own image in a pixilated vanity mirror. TV makes a cult of shallow personalities and re-masticates the themes favored by corporate advertisers, who prefer that the public not ask questions. The tattered flag of print journalism follows this parade to nowhere. So the old hierarchies crumble, leaving us with no alternative to shoddy commercial entertainment. The sofa and the recliner beckon in what is not so much a bedroom now as a sanatorium for physically enfeebled, overweight and stressed adults.

In this situation, presenting Wally Cardona in a vacant storefront on the Lower East Side for the benefit of active, young crowds begins to resemble an act of heroism, regardless of who stands to profit. Yet the most vigorous efforts to fill the streets and plazas of New York with artists are evidently inadequate to the task of restoring cultural access to the majority of Americans and thus fostering renewed appreciation of the arts in society at large. Surmounting the obstacles to access and reaching this mass public should be a priority for artists and their supporters — whether those allies are funders and presenters or businesses looking after their own interests. Meanwhile, we can continue to relish the memory of artistic “collaborations” like the following ones:

In the year 2008 fraudulent sales of mortgage-backed securities caused the U.S. economy to tank (talk about a real-estate deal!), and that summer choreographer Monica Bill Barnes and her dancers scampered through Robert Wagner Jr. Park, near The Battery, as part of the LMCC’s Sitelines series. Outdoors in bright sunshine, they performed a piece called “Game Face” offering tongue-in-cheek sympathy to Wall Street employees forced to toil long hours. With finance workers virtually shackled to their desks, who needs prosecutions? That summer the Sitelines series also included a zany publicity stunt, in which Philadelphia’s Headlong Dance Theater performed “Hotel Pool,” a splashing-wet fantasy presented in the swimming pool of a building trying to sell apartment units.

My favorite tango between art and real-estate that year, however, took place in New Jersey, and involved a choreographer named Joshua Bisset. In return for generating a trendy and enticing atmosphere, the Coalco Corporation of Manhattan allowed Bisset and his partners, Laura Quattrocchi and Sylvestre Gobart, to create a dance installation called “Public Acts” in an unfinished space that was destined to become the parking garage of Canco Lofts in Jersey City. The former factory building was being converted to — you guessed it — luxury housing. Bisset’s concept involved handing power tools to audience members and informing them, much to their surprise, that in order to watch the dancing they would have to drill through a sheet-rock wall. The strategy was meant not only to challenge the public (how badly do you want to see this dance?) but also to empower viewers encouraging them to overcome the habits of passive consumption they had acquired by watching television.

“Public Acts” brings us back to our starting place in Williamsburg and to the exhibition of “A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby.” The requirements of works like these explain why artists today are eager to avail themselves of business offers, even when the benefits are short-lived and do nothing to ensure the sustainability of the arts community. It isn’t easy to find a space where you can prepare and then display a 35-foot-tall, sugar-coated sphinx. Similarly, the directors of conventional theaters instinctively recoil from the idea of audience members armed with drills and buzz saws clambering over the wreckage of their beloved auditoriums. “Without our walls,” you can practically hear the  development directors wail, “Where will we engrave the names of our donors?” “Sugar Baby” and “Public Acts” may be extreme examples of works that place a strain on the creative infrastructure, but they exemplify the choreographer’s dilemma. Unlike fiction writers, composers or even painters, choreographers and dancers need space to move — lots of it — and even the sculptor of the “Marvelous Sugar Baby” has an advantage over them in that her creation doesn’t yearn to soak its tired muscles in a hot bath after rehearsal. Unlike an ensemble of live dancers, “Sugar Baby” also doesn’t need to eat.

None of this means artists shouldn’t accept money or proposals tied to commercial enterprises. Yet the tragedy unfolding in our midst, as the winds of change keep blowing and the dance community struggles to maintain the achievements of the Dance Boom, suggest that artists should not be so easily satisfied with the offers extended to them. They should demand a more equitable reward for their contributions to the economy, which are so widely acknowledged  that businesses are banking on them. In addition to solving the problem of accessibility, re-evaluating America’s inadequate system of arts financing and the conditions attached to funding is overdue. When this discussion begins, there will be no point in sugar-coating it.

Robert Johnson is the dance critic for The Star-Ledger, in Newark, New Jersey, and a free-lance writer on dance. For more than 25 years he has covered the American dance scene for daily papers, trade magazines, books and scholarly journals. He has taught and lectured on dance history and criticism; and has worked as an editor at Dance Magazine and Pointe Magazine. He trained in ballet with Nina Youshkevitch; and holds a master’s degree in Performance Studies from New York University. In 2005 Dance New Jersey, the local service organization, awarded him its first “Dance Advocate Award.” Follow him on Twitter @RobertJ26215165, or visit nj.com/entertainment/arts.

 

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