Cambridge State of Mind
Three studios form a nurturing dance network.
Marcus Schulkind’s modern class at Green Street Studios. Photo by Liza Voll, Courtesy Voll.
On a rainy autumn morning I climb the two steep flights of marble stairs to the Dance Complex lobby at Central Square, then up three more to Tommy Neblett’s advanced modern class. The next morning, I’m around the corner at Green Street Studios for Marcus Schulkind’s 8:30 a.m. floor barre, followed by his modern session. At the same time, 14 members of Jose Mateo’s Ballet Theatre are in daily class in Harvard Square’s Old Cambridge Baptist Church.
Welcome to dance in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where only 15 blocks and one subway stop on the Red Line separate these three busy studios. While Boston Ballet and its several branches have a strong presence in the area, a different group of dancers are working in Cambridge to push the boundaries of contemporary performance. The Dance Complex, Green Street Studios, and Jose Mateo’s facility house a large portion of the Greater Boston dance world: New England’s second-largest professional ballet company, several hundred classes weekly, and dozens of rehearsing and performing groups. Whether you’re a pre-professional or a beginner, a Boston native or a visitor from out of town looking for a supportive dance environment, you are likely to feel at home.
The students and professionals who populate the Cambridge dance world come from all over. Many are recent college graduates who remain in the area after finishing dance programs at Harvard, Tufts, Boston University, and Boston Conservatory. Others have moved from cities like Los Angeles and New York to this smaller, more intimate scene. Luke Reid-Grassia, a member of the Dance Complex–based Prometheus Dance, relocated after graduating from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, hoping “to make connections in another part of the country. I think it’s really important for dancers not to feel like they have to be in New York to do what they love.” Fellow Prometheus member Jennifer Kelble adds, “Boston is a more nurturing and friendly environment compared to New York. There is more camaraderie here and less competition.”
Like aspiring performers the world over, the dancers of Cambridge work at varied jobs to support their dance habit: bartending, teaching at other studios, helping to administrate various non-profits, or modeling for art classes.
Of the three studios, the Dance Complex is the largest and most eclectic. Rozann Kraus and several other choreographer/performers founded the space 20 years ago to save the 1884 Odd Fellows Hall when an earlier tenant, Joy of Movement, went out of business. Kraus is a savvy arts activist who convinced the Cambridge town officials to support the Dance Complex as an anchor for the neighborhood and a magnet for upscale businesses. The six studios are filled nearly 24/7 with classes, rehearsals, and weekend performances at the Julie Ince Thompson Theatre, named after a beloved late member of the community.
“Our goal is to help dancers do whatever they need to do, including making a living,” Kraus says. “They need to take classes, have rehearsal space, get validated (as opposed to being judged) for who they are, and earn a living—all in an affordable, welcoming atmosphere. The Dance Complex helps this happen.”
Also celebrating a 20th anniversary, and located around the corner, is Green Street Studios, which was formed by a consortium of five teacher/choreographers wanting to control their own space. Schulkind, the only founder still teaching there, is arguably the go-to instructor for contemporary dance in the area. He has mentored a number of professionals, including local choreographers Lorraine Chapman and Nicole Pierce, as well as Elizabeth Waterhouse, who went on to perform with William Forsythe’s company. Like his early mentor, Mark Ryder, Schulkind teaches both ballet and modern technique, never losing his enthusiasm for a student’s progress. “Green Street is a lab to explore dancing,” he says, “and for students to figure out what dance means to them.”
On weekends, Green Street’s largest studio converts into a theater shared by the 24 companies that rehearse there. “I love rehearsing at Green Street because of the vibe,” says Lise Brody, who directs one of those companies, Round the Corner Movers. “When we clear out after rehearsal, there’s another group waiting to come in and do something completely different.” Green Street is also home to Boston Percussive Dance, a school that offers approximately 24 classes each week in tap, Irish dance, and flamenco, taught on a specially constructed floor.
As incubators for new work, Dance Complex and Greet Street foster young dancemakers by pairing them with more experienced mentors, through the Dance Complex Shared Choreographers’ concerts and Green Street’s Emerging Artists Award program. Both studios also offer master classes by artists beyond Greater Boston. The 2011–2012 guest teachers include Bruce Marks, former director of the Boston Ballet; Canada’s great solo dancer, Margie Gillis; and Tony Rizzi, long-time member of William Forsythe’s troupe in Germany.
For students seeking more in-depth ballet training—but still inside a contemporary framework—Jose Mateo’s studio is the place to be. Mateo has dedicated 25 years to creating a company and school based on an approach he calls New Classicism. “How can we incorporate 50 years of modern dance into ballet vocabulary for contemporary taste?” he asks. His answer is a technique that is “more fluid, more organic, safer on the body,” which is taught at his Harvard Square headquarters and at his second school in Duxbury. Mateo has created the entire repertoire for his company, which performs at the beautiful theater he has developed in the Old Cambridge Baptist Church. Of the three Cambridge studios, Mateo runs the largest junior program, which feeds into his professional company.
Mateo, Kraus, and Schulkind have become the elder statesmen of Cambridge dance through their leadership, which extends beyond running individual studios. Schulkind was recognized by the Boston Dance Alliance as the 2009 Dance Champion; Mateo sponsors an annual Dance for World Community Festival that engages local and regional troupes to appear on several stages in the Harvard Square area. Working together, these three artists have helped to forge a comprehensive, inclusive dance community, even through lean years. Schulkind says, “I’m happy to have survived and do the work we do.” Kraus adds, “We’re all in it together. We love each other.”
Iris Fanger is a dance and theater critic based in the Boston area.