IN THE CITY OF NEW YORK

The Art of Pleasing

by Paul Hond
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Thus began a dancer’s second act: Shuler learned and performed the vital function of fundraising, which she characterizes as “another way to enable the arts to happen.” For 11 years she worked at Lincoln Center, first as vice president of planning and development, and then as senior vice president of planning and external affairs. After that, she was executive director of the Howard Gilman Foundation, a $400 million charitable organization devoted to the arts, medical research, and environmental conservation. “Philanthropy is the flip side of raising money,” says Shuler, who has a way of packing big ideas into a nutshell. “It enables artists and organizations to produce their work.”Although she found philanthropy “rewarding,” she feels “most effective and engaged when I can actively build and support programs with which I’m directly involved.”

When Shuler came to lead City Center in 2003, she knew all about the institution’s resiliency. What she didn’t know was that somewhere in the kingdom, another dragon was being born. This development was especially menacing to an organization that relies on private donations for one-third of its operating budget. But when the beast reared up in 2008, and the economy performed its big tombé — all in the middle of City Center’s $75 million capital campaign to raise money for renovations — Shuler had to respond.

“We began to see the handwriting on the wall in September 2008, right before Lehman Brothers fell. I came back from vacation and I met with our staff and said, ‘OK, let’s come up with a list of things we can cut if we need to cut.’ We didn’t cut any of the core programs because I think the worst thing to do in a recession or time of economic stress, when you still need to raise money, is to cut programs. We are a performing arts institution; what we do is on the stage. So, we tweaked around the edges, in ways that weren’t necessarily apparent to the public: costumes, marketing, doing one brochure instead of two. Ways that wouldn’t affect our core operations.”

Not every purse-string holder would have been so faithful. Lincoln Kirstein’s comment that Margot Fonteyn, of all the ballerinas of the 20th century, “most embodies the art of pleasing,” might equally apply to Shuler. The faces in the crowd at Fall for Dance attest to that: Already the festival is a seasonal must-do, one of those events, like Shakespeare in the Park or the unveiling of an iPhone, for which people camp out overnight. The dance world has taken note of Shuler’s vision. In 2009, she received the prestigious Capezio Dance Award, given yearly since 1952 by the dance apparel manufacturer to that individual or institution whose “innovation, creativity, and imagination . . . bring respect, stature, and distinction to dance.” Past recipients include Martha Graham, Jerome Robbins, Alvin Ailey, Rudolf Nureyev, and, in 1953, Lincoln Kirstein.

“It feels like completing a circle,” Shuler has said of her return to City Center. It’s a ripe simile for a purveyor of the rond de jambe, but Shuler’s circle encompasses more than her own history. It arcs from the dawn of the temple itself — almost 100 years past — to the point, just months away, of its latest renaissance.

V

On March 16, 2010, City Center unveiled plans for its dramatic restoration. The first phase, completed last year, replaced the stage floor and revamped the dressing rooms. The second phase will occur this year from March to October, while the house is dark, after which patrons will enjoy additional restrooms, a second elevator, a restored and expanded rococo-Morocco lobby, a refurbished lounge, improved sight lines, all new seats, and better wheelchair access.

“The theater will be very beautiful and much more comfortable and will provide an enhanced experience for the audience when we reopen in October,” Shuler says.

Shuler knows a few things about revivals. Certainly, she reinvented herself after she stopped dancing, but it’s tempting to imagine that the seeds were planted long before that. One can go all the way back to Cleveland, when Shuler was a nimble sprig of seven. That year, the Royal Ballet came to town, and Shuler, with her mother’s support, got a tiny part in the production. Her job was to carry the train of the lead ballerina’s cape.

With a grace and sureness beyond that of the average first grader, Shuler lifted the cloak and followed the magnificent and enduring princess onto the stage. Then she laid the fabric at her feet.

The dancer was Margot Fonteyn. The ballet was The Sleeping Beauty.

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