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Ailey Co.'s new home raises the bar

By Kim CampbellStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 25, 2005



NEW YORK

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater got practically everything its artistic director wanted in a new building: more rehearsal studios, a black-box theater, a library, and a physical therapy room. True, Judith Jamison had hoped for a pool for cross-training - the architects had room instead for a whirlpool - but she's elated with the company's new home.

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What Ms. Jamison thinks of as important affects more than just those affiliated with the Ailey. The polished building at 55th Street and Ninth Avenue is already becoming a hub of activity for the dance community and the neighborhood. Dedicated this month, but open since November, the facility offers opportunities for dance in a city hungry for them.

The $54 million structure - touted by its occupants as the largest in the United States dedicated exclusively to dance - symbolizes both the success the Ailey company has achieved and its commitment to making dance accessible. The increased space will allow the Ailey to do more of its signature outreach work, offering classes in dance and fitness to the general public for the first time starting in April.

It's also providing more resources for outside dancers and choreographers - from Bill T. Jones to Broadway - who are perpetually hunting for decent-sized, affordable places in which to rehearse and perform.

That the Ailey, which faced financial problems more than a decade ago, was able to raise the money for a permanent home is a reflection of the group's solid artistic and financial vision, say some in the dance community. Donations to the building fund - and a new endowment, now just $7 million away from a $25 million goal - came from members of the group's board and donors like the City of New York, which has contributed more than $10 million so far.

"It's [as if] New York City is saying, 'We want this dance center here,' which is very unusual [in the experience of] dancers," says Wendy Perron, editor in chief of Dance Magazine. "Dance in general has been so marginalized."

She attributes the Ailey's ability to raise money to its popularity and well-maintained checkbook. "You can have the most inspired company in the world," she explains, "but if there's not business sense, [it's] just going to fall apart."

In the past 15 years, Jamison - a protégé of Ailey's who took the helm after he died in 1989 - and a skilled administrative staff turned the organization around, helping it climb out of a $1 million hole to become a fundraising powerhouse.

"Judith is smart. She's a very savvy business person," says Gus Solomons Jr, an associate arts professor at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. Besides having a talent for picking dancers, he says, she knows how to woo donors. It's understandable that the group would need its own building, he adds. "They really are an institution."

The new facility is an upgrade from the two crowded floors of nearby rental space the company and its educational programs occupied until recently. Now there are eight floors on which to spread out, with almost double the amount of space available for creating, practicing, and learning. With its large windows, the building allows dancing to be seen from the street.

Jamison says she's been thinking about a permanent building since she took over the company. Now that the group is a few years shy of its 50th anniversary, it has established itself in a manner deserving of dedicated space, she says. "We've been needing something other than two floors of a building to hold that vision that was so large of Alvin's," she explains in a phone conversation while on tour with the company in California. "We've been transient, and now we are permanent."

Ms. Perron, the editor, recently attended a showcase for up-and-coming Broadway choreographers in the building's new 295-seat theater that converts to studios. "You got a feeling on entering the space that it wasn't just Ailey classes.... It was really welcoming to a lot of different kinds of dance," she says. Perron praises the group for being more open than, say, the Paris Opera Ballet. "It's creating a channel for outside people to come in."

Texas-born Ailey started his troupe back in 1958, and his early "ballets" were inspired by his black roots - "blood memories," as he called them, of his home state and its music, including the blues, spirituals, gospel, ragtime, and folk. His troupe welcomed African-Americans, who were turned away from the classical ballet world, which still struggles with diversity. Today his company is among those atop the modern dance category, traveling extensively in the US and abroad.

The Ailey's strong artistic programming accounts for much of its overall success, suggests executive director Sharon Gersten Luckman during an interview in her new office. From a fundraising standpoint, she says, the fact that Ailey does so many activities - from stage performances to work in schools - makes it easy to find ways to appeal to different donors. Another strength is the group's board - chaired by Joan Weill, who along with her husband gave $18.4 million to the latest campaign. The new building is officially called The Joan Weill Center for Dance.

"We've gotten reaction from the dance community the way we hoped that we would," Ms. Luckman says, explaining that in addition to renting studio and theater space, they've also let others use their conference rooms. "They see it as an opportunity for them, too."

As for Jamison, she's not calling this a peak for her troupe. She prefers the word precipice, as in "something to leap from." They're on the edge of something, she says, "and we don't know what that is yet, because we haven't lived in the building long enough. But we know what we want to happen. I want that to feel as big as Alvin's heart."

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