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How They Became a Downtown Ballet Company

By: Susan Reiter
Date: Jun 16, 2015


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New York Theatre Ballet moves (literally) into a new era


To say it's been an eventful year for New York Theatre Ballet would be a considerable understatement. In May 2014, this resilient chamber ensemble, acclaimed for its sense of artistic purpose and thoughtful repertory choices, almost faced homelessness. After 33 years of operating – alongside its affiliated school – out of a comfortable space in a Murray Hill, NYTB learned that the building was going to be razed.

The responsibility for finding a new home rested on the slight shoulders of founder and artistic director Diana Byer. "I was out looking at spaces at least two or three times a week and calling people to get the word out," she says.

Eventually, she spoke with City Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, who had just learned that the Incubator Arts Project was vacating its second-floor space in St. Mark's Church on the Bowery. After some major renovations, NYTB resettled there.

Along with the relocation to the East Village, the company has made major moves in terms of performance venues and repertory. For decades, all its programs – which include a weekend subscription series of family-friendly productions – were at Florence Gould Hall, a sizable and rather impersonal midtown proscenium space.

But this season the company has appeared in multiple venues, many for the first time. This week, for instance, a program of five pieces is being performed at Danspace Project, which favors cutting-edge work and happens to be in the same building as the ensemble's new offices.

The upcoming slate includes two world premieres, which signals Byer's recent effort to diversify the repertory. Though the company made its reputation on pristinely detailed, eloquently danced productions of works by British masters such as Frederick Ashton and Antony Tudor, there's been a recent focus on new choreography. This season's title, Legends and Visionaries, sums up the ambitious dual focus.


A major step was commissioning a 2011 work from the eminent British choreographer Richard Alston, his first for an American troupe. NYTB also has offered two premieres by Pam Tanowitz, giving the modern choreographer a chance to create for ballet dancers, and three by Gemma Bond, a dancer with American Ballet Theater.

Bond's Cat's Cradle is part of this week's performances. The schedule also includes a new version of Alston's Such Longing, an intimately-scaled 2005 work set to Chopin piano selections that he has extensively adapted and expanded.

Another piece on the bill, Tudor's eloquently restrained classic Dark Elegies, will be taken out of its usual proscenium setting. The Mahler score, originally for baritone and orchestra, will be performed live by a vocalist and music director/pianist Michael Scales.

Adding spice to the mix, David Parker has created Two Timing, a tap solo to showcase a lesser-known side of veteran NYTB dancer Elena Zahlmann.

This ambitious programming has raised NYTB's profile, but Byer notes that laudatory reviews don't always translate into increased donations. The title of the company's cozy, in-studio performance series, Dance on a Shoestring, says it all.

Still, she points out that artists find a true home with the troupe: "My 12 dancers are on salaries, working 30 to 40 weeks a year." (The company tours nationally to small venues.)

The recent relocation is also energizing plans for the future. "Part of the mentality of moving is that we really want to be the downtown ballet company," Byer says. "As far as I know, there's never been a ballet company downtown. I think we're the first ballet company to perform at Danspace. I'm taking the risk. Taking risks is what a company the size of ours is good for. I think for art to survive, you need to have companies like ours."


Susan Reiter is a regular contributor to TDF Stages

Photos by Darial Sneed. Top photo: A scene from Dark Elegies

Susan Reiter covers dance for TDF Stages.