Long-time Choreographer, Entrepreneur, and Visionary Receives Dance/USA’s 2017 Ernie Award
By Eva Yaa Asantewaa
I think the most important thing was giving the dance world a model of success. What I think the dance world needed was some good news.
— Gina Gibney, Artistic Director and CEO, Gibney Dance
When I arrived at New York’s Gibney Dance: Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center to interview choreographer and entrepreneur Gina Gibney, she was finishing up a business call. So I sat down to wait at a little table in the center’s art gallery. This space, with its constant flow of activity, also serves as a lobby for Gibney’s 130-seat main theater and the hub of bright administrative offices, dance studios, a digital technology lab and other spaces fanning out all around it. You might spend time in the gallery, hovering over your coffee, working at your laptop, stretching a bit before your ballet or Afro-Haitian dance class, chatting with a buddy or taking part in a community discussion on Black Lives Matter. Gibney loves to make spaces not only work but multitask.
In a world where every square inch of real estate holds enormous value, Gina prioritizes space for communal gathering, for warming up and cooling down, for contemplation and accidental collaboration. The intentional thought and care Gina takes to provide a place for dancers to be — onstage and off — is a testament to her holistic commitment to the field.
— Kara Gilmour, Director of Community Action, Gibney Dance Center
In June at Dance/USA’s Annual Conference in Kansas City, Gibney receives the organization’s Ernie Award, given annually to a changemaker in the field, whose work may often go unheralded but has “significantly empowered artists and supported their creativity individually or as a community.” The Ernie is named for long-time arts advocate and founder of the Cleveland Ballet Ernie Horvath, who was the first recipient of the award.
The center — her most recent of two Gibney locations — occupies two floors across Chambers Street from New York’s City Hall Park and the historic Tweed Courthouse. Its landmarked, city-owned Tribeca building, 280 Broadway, has its own urban history, from the 19th century, as the site of Irish-born A. T. Stewart’s wildly successful department store — at that time, the world’s largest. From 1919 to 1952, the building housed The New York Sun, a daily newspaper and, ever after, became known as The Sun Building. More recently, dancers have come to claim their own place in The Sun.
Today, under the Gibney Dance Center umbrella, dancers have access to rehearsal space, residency opportunities, classes, performance opportunities, and training and mentorship from experienced colleagues.
This tale actually starts a bit further uptown, near Union Square and the Flatiron, in another building with its own storied history and Gibney success. More on that later.
In 2013, the City of New York approached Gibney to take over 36,000 square feet of space at The Sun, including the 25,000 square feet vacated by Dance New Amsterdam (DNA), a well-loved yet struggling nonprofit that, in 2006, had moved into the building. After several years of providing classes, renting rehearsal spaces and presenting performances at The Sun, DNA filed for bankruptcy, hoping to reorganize, recover and hang on but could not land support for its multi-year plan.
The transition from DNA’s leadership to Gibney remains, for some observers, a controversial move, but few argue with the resulting and ongoing boon for the dance community. Since 2014, Gina Gibney has steadily expanded both space and programming at 280 Broadway, seizing every opportunity to offer more services to the dance community than she could uptown at 890 Broadway.
Gina is: loyal, ethical, equitable and persuasive. In fact, very few people know that in one passionate phone call she almost single-handedly persuaded me to move from Colorado to take the position as director of Danspace Project! And I have trusted her instincts ever since!
She is a fierce advocate for human rights, a fierce advocate for dance. And, thankfully, someone as generous and courageous as Gina is also a stellar negotiator running around New York City saving spaces and seizing multiple opportunities to make NYC a better place for dance and for dancers!
— Judy Hussie-Taylor, Artistic Director, Danspace Project
Raised in Ohio and educated at Case Western Reserve University — where she considered taking up civil rights law or politics before wholeheartedly committing to dance and earning both a BA and an MFA — Gibney established her troupe in New York in 1991. That same year she also landed a prime situation at 890 Broadway, thanks to co-owner Eliot Feld whose Ballet Tech operation is headquartered there along with American Ballet Theatre (ABT).
Now called the Lawrence A. Wien Center for Dance and Theater, the building was originally purchased in 1978 by acclaimed Broadway choreographer Michael Bennett (A Chorus Line and Dreamgirls) and converted to dance and theater rehearsal space. By 1986, Bennett, in declining health and finances, could no longer hold onto the property. To save it from commercial developers, Feld’s foundation and ABT bought it, yielding income from space rentals across a wide range of budgets — from small contemporary dance troupes to Broadway musical theater productions and touring companies.
Gibney’s group first developed and occupied Studio 5-2 there. “Such a dream come true for a young artist who had just come to New York, who had just formed relationships with colleagues,” she told me. “We wanted it so much, and it turned out more beautiful than we ever thought it would be -- the windows and the sprung floor, one of the best floors in New York, just the care that went into it.”
“My partner Pam [Pamela Van Zandt, a corporate executive] called in every favor that had ever been owed to her in the corporate world to get folding chairs or blinds or pipes installed. We got this incredible craftsman to come in and do the floors. I remember that summer, you know, just the sense of, ‘Oh, my god! This is ours!’” Tearing up and, as is her way, immediately apologizing, she added, “I saw a photo of when that space was pristine and brand new and I felt like I had just landed.”
“A lot of other studios in that neighborhood closed during that time,” she remembered. “The Nikolais space, the Limón Space, the Hawkins space. There were spaces where ABC Carpet is now. Eliot Feld allowed us to stay.“And it was a place worth fighting for during the economic downturn [of 2008] when we almost went out of business,” Gibney said. “But we prioritized maintaining our relationship, paying our rent, which was really tough. We had an understanding: By the end of the fiscal year, all the rent is paid, and he would be flexible with us." That led to the expansion from 5-2. And even then, Gibney was using the space collaboratively: another teacher came in and taught a daily morning ballet class before Gibney’s company arrived to rehearse from 2:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. “All the other time, and at times that I wasn't rehearsing, we rented the space out to other companies.”
“When more space became available, Eliot trusted us to take it over. Two studios opened up during the worst economic moment of our lives, and I really just had to do it. I really owe him a debt of gratitude. Eliot is an entrepreneur, and I think he sees what we’re doing on that floor as an extension of the history of the building.” Gibney’s prowess as a visionary entrepreneur at a time of economic risk should also not be underestimated.
Gibney Dance Choreographic Center — now the entire 5th Floor of 890 — encompasses eight light-filled, high-ceilinged studios and an office relocated from the once obscure and disorganized rear of the floor to a window-lined space in the front. “We wanted to feel like a new organization — accessible, available — to have a certain level of modernism,” Gibney said. “We changed the organizational culture in that move to the front. A different feeling — cleaner, more transparent, more open.”
Opening up space at Tribeca’s Sun Building has given Gibney a way to reserve her studios at 890 for artist residencies and rentals for dance, theater and television productions. The Varis spaces at 280 allow not only for a full, diverse slate of dance technique classes and workshops, but also numerous public performances, work-in-progress showings, community discussions, digital training and services, training in administrative practices, and other innovative support programs for emerging and mid-career artists. Any day or night of the week, you can show up and find pretty much whatever you need as student, performer, maker or audience member.
I think people who observe Gina from a distance might assume that she’s all business all the time. But Gina has a lot of fun with her work. She loves good ideas. Riffing on how to build a program literally makes her wriggle in her seat.
Gina's left- and right-brained in a way that I have never seen in another person. She can lose herself in a spreadsheet in the morning and then disappear into a dance studio for the afternoon. She doesn’t hesitate. She’s nimble, and she moves forward from idea to implementation at lightning speed … and yet, she’s not impulsive.
— Craig Peterson, former Director of Programs and Presentation, Gibney Dance; currently, Artistic Director, Abrons Arts Center
Gibney sat to talk with me in her spare, tidy LuEsther Turner Mertz Learning and Leadership Studio, which, despite its appearance, should not be mistaken for your typical office conference room, as she takes pains to remind me. The studio regularly hosts workshops and other gatherings that instruct dancers in the tools they need to support their creativity and to nurture community action, such as her troupe’s signature work with women survivors of intimate partner violence.
Training for Entrepreneurship
“We call it a studio in order to signal to dancers that coming in to learn about business or entrepreneurship or networking is just as natural as being in a studio dancing,” Gibney explained. “Often business training for dancers happens in big, scary, over-air-conditioned rooms, and we wanted this to feel like just part of the space, part of what we’re making available.”
She proudly points out the refrigerator, the coffee-maker, the small, select library neatly tucked inside a few shelves, the hidden-away paper and dry-erase board and easel. What it does not have is clutter — an absolute no-no in any Gibney realm. But if the room appears austere when unused, for Gibney, what matters is that it bubbles with life when in use: “People add the color and texture.”
The choreographer, whose poetically crafted work emphasizes human connection and dialogue embodied in movement, thinks back to the early days at 280. Building her vision for its spaces, she often opened her doors to the dance community, seeking input. “We signed the lease for 280 in January 2014, and after that did a whole series of topical town halls, one-on-one meetings, and opened a community idea portal on our website. A lot of really good ideas came from this process,” Gibney said.
I took part in a few of those informal, facilitated discussions where participants were asked to identify — for themselves as individuals as well as for the dance community at large — a variety of practical needs, barriers to advancement and potential solutions.
“It was completely gutted, and we were working on Costco tables,” she remembered. “There was so much work invested in conversations I had with interns or board members or people from the community, about what we wanted this space to be.”
She aspired, first and foremost, to give the dance community a reason for hope.
As a dance community, Gibney said, “We’ve been kind of pulled down too long, and the difference on a spiral between heading up and heading down can be practically imperceptible, but it’s huge — the idea of positive progress, building capacity, making better decisions. You know in the dance world, we’re used to recreating our world every day. We have the responsibility to make this place, every single day, as great as it can be and to build the space that the dance world needs for the future, the space we all want to work in.”
Gina models valuing “both/and” rather than an “either/or” approach. She was the first person to show me how powerful it can be to make space for different answers to the same questions both inside and outside the studio. Those answers could change, they could evolve, the could actively respond to the needs of the people and the environment in order to make the greatest impact.
She knows dance artists not only have the skill sets to be movers but also creators, facilitators, advocates, public speakers, educators, producers, administrators, designers, collaborators and entrepreneurs all at once.”
— Amy Miller, Associate Artistic Director, Associate Artistic Director, Company Director and Company Member, Gibney Dance
Focus and Balance
Colleagues from the field often remark upon Gibney’s unusual focus and balance — two traits she describes as late to develop and hard won. Diligent and modest, she is not one to put ego out in front of anything she creates. In the years I’ve known her, I have always found her accessible and warm, but I wanted to learn more.
Indulging my idea for her to take a “memory palace” tour of spaces at her 890 and 280 sites that hold special meaning for her, she focused as much, if not more, on other people’s inspiration or involvement as on her own. Even so, I did get something I wanted from this exercise — insight into Gibney values and how they play out in space, staffing and leadership.
Why, for instance, would something as seemingly utilitarian as the Varis center’s registration desk matter to Gibney? It’s not just the architect’s snazzy design that she adores — ”beautiful … with the light and the metal and the glass” — but the very need to question what a front desk means and how it functions.
“Everybody talks about the front desk at the studio where there’s a mix-up about your space or the person isn’t very nice to you, or they take out their frustrations about not dancing on you,” Gibney says. “That thing that everybody feels. I don’t want our people to be ‘front desk people.’ The Center interns, Center fellows, are this steady stream of the most smart, resourceful, caring, enthusiastic people who come through here.”
“And we essentially try to brainwash them about the field and the interactions they will have with each other,” she adds, playfully laughing. “It’s not a desk you hide behind. It’s a platform, a springboard, like a stage. You’re aware of what’s happening around you. You see people before they see you. And it’s where you start to build your own personal brand.”
Her personal brand — clearly and increasingly instilled in her nearly 50-member staff of full- and part-time employees, roughly fifteen interns and five company members — centers around empowerment. For Gibney, you meet a new challenge by learning everything you’ll require to tackle it. And, yes, you can. Yes, you — dancer over there — you can. She believes in you.
“Bessie Schönberg [the influential 20th-century choreographer and teacher] mentored me at a time when I worked at a law firm. I told her, when I go to work and say I’m a dancer, people either say something lewd like ‘Oh! You’re a dancer!’ Or dismissive like, ‘Oh … you’re a dancer.’ And she said, ‘You hold your head high, and you say, ‘I am a dancer and a choreographer, and I create ….’ She gave me this statement, this posture.”
Gibney keeps that early counsel close to her heart, especially sensitive to the double-whammy facing women, queer and gender-nonconforming dance artists. Shifting dance artists away from a needy, crisis-based mentality to a confident awareness of what they offer society clarifies and strengthens how they present themselves, onstage and off, and how the field is perceived, one encounter at a time. They are natural leaders, Gibney believes, and she aims to support that leadership with space, tools, skill-building, community and her effective model of professionalism.
And she’s far from finished. Renovation continues at The Sun with an additional 10,000 square feet, taken as a requirement in her lease. Excited by this next opportunity, she called the space perfect for dance.
“It’s as if A. T. Stewart, planning his dry goods store, had predicted, ‘In a couple hundred years, these are going to be dance studios!’ The layout, the pillars, the windows — it’s going to be stunning! We had to match our funding from the city, and I am deep in fundraising mode right now.
“But it’s going to be extraordinary,” Gibney continues. “It’s going to seal the deal. An entire floor. Six more dance studios. More space to spread out. Imagine what that’s going to feel like?”
Eva Yaa Asantewaa first published dance writing in 1976 and has written for Dance Magazine, The Village Voice, SoHo Weekly News, Gay City News, The Dance Enthusiast, Time Out New York and other venues. She founded InfiniteBody, her popular arts blog in 2007. She has hosted dance podcasts (Body and Soul; Serious Moonlight), served on the inaugural faculty of Montclair State University’s MFA in Dance program and the inaugural faculty for MANCC Forward Dialogues, Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography.
Joining the curatorial team for Danspace Project’s 2016 platform “Lost and Found,” Yaa Asantewaa created the skeleton architecture, or the future of our worlds, featuring 21 Black women and gender-nonconforming performers in an evening of group improvisation. As a WBAI radio broadcaster (1987-89), she worked with the Women's Radio Collective and the Gay and Lesbian Independent Broadcasters Collective, co-hosted the Tuesday Afternoon Arts Magazine, and produced her own specials. Since the 1980s, she has served numerous LGBTQ, feminist, POC and arts organizations and initiatives as a workshop facilitator in alternative practices of writing, meditation, divination, ritual and wellness.
Ms. Yaa Asantewaa is a native New Yorker of Barbadian immigrant heritage and lives in the East Village.
First image: Gibney at a Town Hall meeting. Photo credit: Whitney Browne
Second image: Gibney Dance Company rehearsal. Photo credit: Scott Shaw
Third image: Gibney at a Town Hall meeting Photo crdit: Whitney Browne
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