A Partnering Lift for 2 Cultural Icons

| 13 Oct 2015 | 10:35

Two iconic American dance institutions — one modern, the other traditional — have entered into a partnership to share studio and administrative space. With rising rents and luxury developments in Manhattan, the arrangement could represent the start of a trend for arts and cultural organizations facing fewer location options.

The José Limón Foundation and Dance Company moved into the Dance Theatre of Harlem's (DTH) Everett Center for the Performing Arts complex on 152nd Street in August.

For more than a decade, the Limón organization had functioned like a touring company in their own home city: the foundation worked out of an office building in the West 30s; the dance company rented rehearsal studio space throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn; and Limón's open classes and professional studies program have been held at Peridance Capezio Center on East 13th Street.

The move is all the more impressive given that it occurred just weeks before the Limón Dance Company kicks off its 70th anniversary with a two-week international dance festival at Chelsea's Joyce Theater Oct. 13-25. Guest artists from some of the world's top dance companies, colleges and schools will join the company, performing 15 of José Limón's masterworks, including his well known “The Moor's Pavane” and “Missa Brevis.”

“This is a dream come true,” Juan José Escalante, the company's executive director, said in the company's spacious new second-floor office space. “We couldn't have a better partner than (Dance Theatre of Harlem) and their staff. It's a place where we feel like one big family.”

In a state of exuberant exhaustion, Carla Maxwell, who joined the Limón Dance Company in 1965 and has been their artistic director since 1978, had just finished conducting the final studio rehearsal before the show opens Tuesday. Maxwell's soft-spoken yet tenacious dedication has been the force that has preserved Limon's choreography, style — lyric, powerful, multi-textured — and company.

“I feel just as passionate about this work now as when I was discovering it for the first time,” she said.

Escalante pointed to a framed poster illustrating an A to Z alphabet of dance. Each letter depicted a whimsical drawing of a legendary dancer. “When DTH cleared out the space for us they found this,” Escalante explained, pointing to the letters L and M. “The first thing that jumped to my attention was Limón and Mitchell right next to each other.”

Jose Limón, who died in 1972, shaped the American modern dance movement as both a leading male dancer of his generation and a master choreographer. He founded Limon Dance Company with Doris Humphrey in 1946. It's now the longest continuously operating dance company following the death of its founder.

Arthur Mitchell was the first African-American dancer to join New York City Ballet, in 1955. He and Karel Shook founded Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969.

Mitchell started DTH in a two-story Harlem garage that he renovated into a studio in 1971. A visionary, he bought the adjoining lot, which was expanded into an annex 20 years later. It includes a main dance studio, dance support facilities, classrooms, a parents' lounge and a second-floor terrace for outdoor gatherings and receptions. Over the years, DTH has faced financial challenges — such as the temporary shutdown of the school in 2004 and of the entire company from 2004 to 2012 — but the building has stood as a solid and symbolic asset.

According to Dance Theatre of Harlem's executive consultant, Anna Glass, the Limón/DTH partnership came about out of a “confluence of a lot of people chatting. We were looking to maximize studio space,” she said, “and Limón was tired of having to search for studio space.”

Escalante credits Lane Harwell, executive director of Dance/NYC, for the LDC/DTH pas de deux. “He was one of those people (with whom) I planted that seed, saying, 'hey if you hear of anything, let me know.' When he heard from DTH that they were looking to share their space, he told them 'you should talk to Limón.'”

Discussions began in May. Both sides put a working proposal on the table and then took it to their boards for approval and the lease was put together.

“There is a cost-savings and it is significant,” said Escalante, who has spent his professional life leading the business side of dance organizations, including the New York City Ballet, Miami City Ballet and Ballet Florida, since 1989. “The amount of effort, time and resources that we had to put chasing studio space, there's a dollar sign next to that. We have a couple of storage facilities that we're looking to consolidate, as well. Now that we have more space, we're able to accommodate more interns and more staff, as we're looking to build capacity here.

A few weeks after Limón settled into their new space, DTH held an open house, inviting the community to take a peek at what both companies were working on: LDC'S festival and DTH's annual tour. Virginia Johnson, a Dance Theatre of Harlem star ballerina for 28 years who succeeded Mitchell as artistic director, Harwell and Maxwell gave a welcome speech to an audience of about 170.

“This space is phenomenal,” Escalante said. “The experimental work is what really helps your audience development. If they can come and take a peek at something that you're doing, they can't wait to buy that ticket when you put it on the stage. And the venue itself in this building with the studios that we have is wide open for that. The community can really get up close and personal.”

Could the DTH/LDC partnership extend beyond just sharing space?

“Virginia and I haven't had any time to brainstorm yet,” said Maxwell. “But we're both stewing with collaborative ideas. I think there's a synergy and a respect between both organizations.”