The Art of Pleasingby Paul Hond
When the English ballerina Margot Fonteyn made her U.S. debut in New York in 1949, the audience fell at her feet. The ballet was The Sleeping Beauty. We know the yarn: A wicked fairy curses a newborn princess to die by a needle prick on her 16th birthday; a good fairy steps in and reduces the hex to century-long
slumber; years pass, memory fades, and when Princess Aurora turns 16, the wicked fairy, in disguise, presents the girl with a spindle. The princess jabs her finger, and she and the entire court lapse into a deep sleep. Only one thing can revive this dormant domain: love.
If the story plucked a string in the city’s hardboiled heart, one needn’t look far for reasons. Who, after all, doesn’t like a good fairy tale?
Once upon a time, in Cleveland, Ohio, there lived a bright little ballet student named Arlene Shuler. Like many dancers, Arlene began her training at the age of six. Her mother, a dance lover, took Arlene to see the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo whenever that famous company came to town. And each year, mother and daughter flew east to the mecca of American dance, that empire of stages and skyscrapers and fairy dust, to see what the rest of the world had to offer.
But mostly, Arlene breathed the dust of the dance studio: the wooden barre, the icy mirror, the metrical point of foot, the lengthening of limb, the flow of line, the bruises, the blisters, the accompanist’s waltz, and a taste, upon a grand jeté of the aerial world, the realm of angels. She became so good that, at 12, she was accepted to the School of American Ballet in New York, founded in
1934 by the lofty prince of culture Lincoln Kirstein and the ballet master and choreographer George Balanchine, in an effort to install this 19th-century Russo-European art form in the land of the Ziegfeld Girls. And so the Shuler family, in support of Arlene’s career, left Ohio and headed for the big city.
Soon after the Shulers arrived, something extraordinary happened. The previous Christmas, in Cleveland, Arlene had watched, live on television, the New York City Ballet’s production of Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. In it, a girl named Clara falls asleep under a Christmas tree, and has the most fantastic dreams. “If I could only be in The Nutcracker!” Arlene had thought. Now, in New York, Arlene was picked to try out for Clara. She went to the City Ballet’s home, a domed building that resembled a Moorish temple, around the corner from Carnegie Hall. There, she auditioned in front of the great Balanchine himself — and got the role! That Christmas season, Arlene frolicked amid snowflakes and candy canes, helped slay a giant mouse, and danced with a prince. How strange and wonderful when a dream comes to life!
But little did Arlene Shuler, or even the Sugar Plum Fairy, know just what lay in store for her under that vault of Spanish tiles . . .
“I wanted to create something that would benefit the entire dance community,” says Arlene Shuler inside her office at New York City Center. Shuler is bright-eyed, red-cloaked, poised, and precise. “We look for ways to support the art form and the artist.”
The topic is Fall for Dance, the enormously popular annual dance festival that Shuler launched in 2004, a year after she was appointed City Center’s president and CEO. Shuler’s ascendance from City Center’s stage to its administrative seat is really a story of reinvention: the performer leaving the footlights (in the late 1960s, at 17, she joined the Joffrey Ballet, a year before it became City Center’s resident company) and emerging years later, behind the curtain, in harder shoes and a business suit, with framed vintage playbills on the office walls. Fall for Dance is the apotheosis of Shuler’s twin passions of art and arts advocacy, a 10-day dance party in which a La Guardia-era price of $10 gets you a rich sampling of performances from among 20 established and up-and-coming companies. The 2010 edition featured the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Bill T. Jones, the Paul Taylor Dance Company, and the San Francisco Ballet, as well as troupes from Brazil, Taiwan, and France. “We sold out in three days,” says Shuler. “In the first day alone, we sold 19,500 tickets. People got in line at 11 p.m. the night before, which, for dance, is pretty remarkable.”
Each night, the crowds surfaced at the 57th Street station, “from the Bronx and Brooklyn, from the far reaches of Flushing and Staten Island, from brownstones and beehive apartments, salesgirls and dowagers and hackies and barmen and garment center stock boys,” as the writer Al Hine described the City Center multitude in 1954. Here, now, was the modern edition of Hine’s jostling wage earners, cramming the sidewalk on West 55th, drawn by a terrific bargain and aroused to civic feeling by the cozy sight of their own diversity. This was New York. The people poured into the mosaic-tiled lobby, diffused through the carpeted halls, and filled up all 2753 seats of the maroon-hued theater.
“One of the objectives of Fall for Dance is to bring new audiences to dance,” says Shuler. “Every year, we take surveys of the Fall for Dance audience. We know that a third are under 30, that about 20 percent either have never been to dance or go less than once a year, and that 40 percent, having been to Fall for Dance, go see more dance. “And” — Shuler’s eyes brighten another kilowatt — “45 percent actually go see a company they first saw at Fall for Dance.”
For a city-owned venue like City Center, which must compete, for starters, with the deluxe, 16-acre performing arts megaplex 10 blocks up Broadway, the cultivation of new audiences is both a moral and economic imperative. Shuler points to a history of shifting fortunes: In 1964, City Center’s core companies — City Ballet and City Opera — left their birthplace at West 55th for the paved deserts and soaring glass of the new Lincoln Center.
“City Center had to reinvent itself,” says Shuler. “The Joffrey Ballet came, followed by Alvin Ailey and Paul Taylor in the 1970s. But since it’s a union house it’s expensive to perform here, and in the ’80s and ’90s not as many companies could afford it. [The Joffrey Ballet left in 1995.] Another impetus behind Fall for Dance was to bring new companies to City Center.”
In the past seven years, more than 140 dance companies have appeared at Fall for Dance.
“Many companies that make their debuts here get picked up and go to other venues like the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival or the Kennedy Center,” says Shuler, for whom nothing pleases like a dance company getting donors or a new agent or a gig at another spot after being seen at City Center. “Fall for Dance,” she says, “has been very successful in helping the companies as much as the audiences.”