IN THE CITY OF NEW YORK

The Art of Pleasing

by Paul Hond
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III

None of it was inevitable.

Not the fever of Fall for Dance, or the swooping, rippling white birds of Matthew Bourne’s Tony-winning Swan Lake, or City Center’s Encores! musical-theater series that revives rarely heard works of Sondheim,

Shuler as a teenager, rehearsing with the Joffrey Ballet at City Center. / Photo courtesy of Arelene ShulerBerlin, Porter, Weill, Rodgers, Hart, and Hammerstein; not the tile mosaics, the terra-cotta dome, the three large dance studios with their stucco walls, or the grand old theater itself, with its battery of lights, a proscenium arch inscribed 90 years ago with the Arabic greeting Es Selamu Aleikum, and a stage upon which, on a weekday afternoon, the cast of Swan Lake, many in sweatpants and T-shirts, rehearsed a dance of the swans: bodies rose and glided along a violin’s hair, then landed, stopped, listened, nodded, laughed at the director’s wit, waited for the next cue, and were aloft again, so that it was impossible, in that hidden moment of tinkering, on the stage where Balanchine assembled his angels and Stokowski summoned Stravinsky and Robeson played Othello for Hine’s shmata workers, not to shudder with a horror of the wrecking ball; not even the Young People’s Dance Series, in which artists from City Center’s resident and visiting dance companies visit between 40 and 50 schools throughout New York, and the students, in turn, come to City Center for a special matinee performance (“You see those yellow buses lining up on 55th and 56th Streets,” Shuler says, shaking her head, and she doesn’t have to finish the sentence) — nothing as sweet as that — had any hope of existing, but for interventions of the sort that children know through the stories they hear at bedtime.

The Mecca Temple opened in 1923 as a lodge for the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, or Shriners. The nonreligious fraternal order was cofounded in 1870 by Dr. Walter M. Fleming and an actor and Freemason named William Florence, who got his festive, Arabic-themed notions while touring Cairo and Algiers. After the financial crash of 1929, the Shriners fell behind on their taxes, and the building, designed by architect Harry P. Knowles and the firm of Clinton & Russell (William Hamilton Russell was trained at the Columbia School of Mines in the 1870s), reverted to the city. For the next decade it lay asleep, and in 1941, this ornamented meetinghouse, with its arabesque ceilings and ghosts of fez-wearing revelers, was set to be demolished. Enter Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia, music lover, who envisioned turning the space into an affordable, city-owned “temple for the performing arts.” Hizzoner waved his wand and got his wish. Or rather, he got his wish and waved his wand: On December 11, 1943, La Guardia, on his 61st birthday, dedicated the City Center for Music and Drama, and, baton in hand, led the New York Philharmonic in “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

After the war, Lincoln Kirstein, who had enlisted, returned to New York. In 1946 he and Balanchine founded Ballet Society, a subscriber-only dance troupe that, like the pair’s previous attempts in the ’30s to establish a viable American ballet company, struggled to get off the ground. But the excellent quality of the project didn’t escape the eye of Morton Baum ’25CC, a former city councilman and tax adviser to La Guardia (in the 1930s he formulated the first New York City sales tax), who was now chairman of the City Center financial committee. In 1948, Baum approached Kirstein and offered Ballet Society a residency at City Center. Kirstein, craving fiscal stability and artistic freedom, eagerly accepted. The New York City Ballet was born.

In 1952, Kirstein became City Center’s managing director, presiding over a golden period when Balanchine and Robeson played to Kramden and Norton, and all was roses under the tiled dome until another Lincoln popped up. With the rise of the gigantic, Rockefeller-funded palace on West 65th, a rumbling could he heard within the mosaic walls. In 1964, with the approval of Kirstein and Baum, City Ballet and City Opera moved to the new Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and La Guardia’s temple, stripped of its angels, lapsed into another dangerous languor. By the late 1970s, there was again talk of the swinging steel ball. And then, at that urgent hour, another fairy stepped in: City Center chairman Howard Squadron ’47LAW, an influential lawyer and cultural leader who was able to secure municipal funds to fix up the place. That led to the city’s decision, in 1983, to grant the building status as a New York City landmark. A dragon was slain.

But only the building was saved. The institution would soon face other battles.

IV

“I had been doing it for so long that it became who I was,” says Arlene Shuler. “My identity was being a dancer.”

For the first two decades of her life, Shuler had never thought about the future. There was the barre, the mirror, the stage, the music, the gift of flight. What more could a mortal desire? While others went off to college or started families, Shuler stayed in her slippers, doing what she knew best. This was before dance companies offered programs allowing dancers to take college courses, and by the time Shuler concluded that the future, now so much closer, did not hold greatness, she faced the crisis of purpose known to anyone who does one thing with single-minded effort for many years and then must give it up.

“It is very hard to make that transition,” Shuler says, a tug in her voice that suggests a process that never fully ends. “It took me a couple of years after I finished dancing to figure out how I could go to college.” Shuler didn’t want to be a freshman with a bunch of 18-year-olds, and since she had a life in New York, the School of General Studies at Columbia was a natural fit. As a student, Shuler supported herself with secretarial work, and decided that she would need an advanced degree to do something “more substantial.” She applied to law school, thinking it would provide her the most flexibility. The Columbia Law School accepted Shuler a year early: With an inner discipline molded in the dance studio, Shuler regained some time.

After her first year of law school, she got a summer job in Washington, D.C., as an intern at the National Endowment for the Arts. That was the turning point. “I thought, ‘I could be an arts administrator.’ I realized I could combine my background in the arts and my love for the arts with my education.”

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