By Maria Rocha-Buschel
It was last fall when the director of the New York Theatre Ballet, which had been located at the Madison Avenue Baptist Church on East 31st Street for over 30 years, learned that the company would be getting evicted in May. But thanks to a conveniently-timed call to City Councilmember Rosie Mendez’s office, the NYTB recently found a new home in another church: St. Mark’s in-the-Bowery, on Second Avenue at East 10th Street.
“No pun intended; it was like being on a wing and a prayer,” Mendez said. “We get calls all the time from organizations getting priced out of their spaces. It just happened that St. Mark’s Church told us they would be losing a tenant and then we got a call from Diana.”
“Diana” is Diana Byer, the founder and artistic director of the company who has been looking for a space since the end of last year.
“We looked every day since last fall, so we really want to thank everyone there because if it wasn’t for the people in her office, we never would have found a space,” she said.
Byer had enlisted the help of a number of neighborhood groups in an effort to stay in the area, including the Flatiron BID and the Gramercy Park Block Association. Byer said that Arlene Harrison, the president of the GPBA, was also instrumental in helping them find a new space and Harrison has been fighting to keep the company in the neighborhood because of its involvement with the community.
“Since a major focus of the Gramercy Park Block Association is ‘Neighbors Helping Neighbors, Taking Care of our Neighbors in Need,’ we have been involved in New York Theatre Ballet’s Project LIFT since Diana founded it in 1989,” Harrison said. LIFT is the school’s program that allows underprivileged children the opportunity to learn to dance. She added that there are also a number of Gramercy Park children who attend the school, and the students there have performed “The Nutcracker” at the nearby Players and National Arts Club in the past, so it was important for the community that the NYTB remain nearby.
“It’s hard because you want to keep them in the neighborhood and there are not a lot of affordable commercial spaces in my district,” said Mendez. “But this worked out for both sides.”
The company won’t be taking over the space right away but Byer said that they got in by July 8 to do some necessary renovations. The goal is to reopen for the school year two weeks after Labor Day on September 15. Even though the space was previously used for performances, Byer said that there are some adjustments that need to be made before it becomes a dance studio.
“We have to put in a sprung floor (for dancing) and put in mirrors and barres,” she said. “We’ll also have to uncover the windows. Those are boarded up now because it’s a blackbox theater and we want it to be more open, and we’ll be painting so it’s very light and airy.”
The rector at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, Winnie Varghese, said that dance has been part of the church’s community since the early 1900s. William Guthrie, who was the rector of the church from 1911 to 1937, thought that art and dance held an important place in religion and at the time, created scandal by bringing in statues of Native Americans and allowing dance performances in the church.
“He was really interested in the idea that arts were how Americans would understand spiritual experiences,” Varghese said.
Although the New York Theatre Ballet hasn’t officially moved into the church yet, it has been using another floor for two weeks in July for a summer camp that allows children ages nine to 12 to learn ballet and jazz, as well as do some of their own choreography.
One of the additions that Byer said will begin at the new space is adult classes. NYTB used to offer adult classes but Byer said they hadn’t been offered in the last few years. Byer added that the company also hopes to be performing with Danspace Project, a community of contemporary dance artists that has rented out space in the church for over 30 years, by June, 2015.
“We’re really excited to expand in this new neighborhood,” Byer said. “We want to be part of the neighborhood and not just for children. We want to involve everyone. It’s going to be terrific.”