Ballet Hispánico's Chris Bloom and Shelby Corona in Michelle Manzanales' If By Chance...

Julie Lemberger, Courtesy NYPL

The Most Magical Dancing in New York City Last Week Was in a Public Library

Libraries, rightly or not, are frequently designated in the public consciousness as places that are silent, stuffy and still.

This has never really been the case when it comes to the Jerome Robbins Dance Division at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Last Wednesday, as dance world luminaries and patrons alike gathered to celebrate its 75th anniversary (which we highlighted in a print-exclusive feature in our August issue), this was more apparent than ever as brief dance performances unfolded in unexpected corners of the division's home on the Lincoln Center campus.

A woman in bright yellow tights and a matching, boxy shirt lunges, facing the camera. Her extended right arm touches the shelves to the left; her turned out back foot brushes the edge of the shelves to the right. The lighting is bright in the aisle in which she stands but shadowy elsewhere.

Pam Tanowitz's Library Dance

Julie Lemberger, Courtesy NYPL

When Linda Murray, the division's current curator, began planning how to celebrate the landmark anniversary, she approached each of the four women who had previously held the post to ask what their dream project would be. The indomitable Genevieve "Gegi" Oswald, who first began partitioning the music division's dance-related materials in 1944 and led the charge to create a distinct dance wing, had a very specific request. "Gegi, ever the maverick, said her wish was that this library be turned into a house of dance for one day," Murray said. Oswald passed away at age 97 earlier this year, but the team at the Dance Division was determined to carry out her wish.

Thus, eight site-specific performances were concocted for the occasion. The breadth of genres represented reflected the omnivorous attitude the collection's curators have towards preserving dance of any and all kinds. The overall effect? It was as though the history contained within the world's largest dance archive had come to life, the ghosts of the past and future joyously traipsing through the stacks after hours, Night at the Museum style.

A smiling dancer in purple and red poses with her arms above her head, hands shaping a specific mudra, on a landing between staircases. She is surrounded by glass.

Aishwarya Madhav in Rajika Puri's A West/East Song and Dance

Julie Lemberger, Courtesy NYPL

Renowned bharatanatyam and Odissi choreographer Rajika Puri contributed a solo for Aishwarya Madhav. A West/East Song and Dance unfolded on the landing of the steps that lead to the second floor. "I remember the first time I came here, and I walked these very steps," she began before remixing Dying Swan and West Side Story—which was filmed, she reminded us, by the division's namesake on the building's foundations—through a classical Indian lens.

Four dancers in red, yellow, blue, and pink pose in a narrow aisle between bookshelves. The two closest to the front are seated on one hip, looking up at the other two. The one in yellow balances on one leg, her hand resting atop one of her fellow's shoulders. Behind, a tall dancer in red stands facing a shelf, arm lifted to hide his face from view.

Pam Tanowitz's Library Dance

Julie Lemberger, Courtesy NYPL

Nearby, jut a moment after that solo concluded, four brightly dressed figures appeared and disappeared in a narrow, dimly lit walkway between a wall and the dance stacks. The dancers ducked in and out of the shelves, forming shifting architectures as they stepped out of the shadows in Pam Tanowitz's appropriately titled Library Dance.

A woman atop a long table is lit from the side in an otherwise dark room. She is barefoot, rising onto the ball of one foot as the other arcs up from striking the floor. Her focus is ahead and slightly down, wholly focused on what she is doing.

Jean Butler in her For You

Julie Lemberger, Courtesy NYPL

In the reading room between the music and dance shelves, a barefoot Jean Butler danced atop a table to music playing only in her wireless earbuds. For You unfolded as an intimate study of the percussive rhythms of Irish stepping, the sounds perfectly clear (despite her bare feet) in the otherwise silent, still space.

Around the corner of the music stacks, Ephrat Asherie delicately illuminated the melodies of her accompaniment (by Lester Young, recorded by her brother and frequent collaborator, Ehud Asherie) in Riff this Remix. The notes of the chosen song seemed to be etched across the floor by her musical breaking.

In the foreground, we see a man's back as he watches a woman atop a long table do a small backbend, a book balanced on her cheek.

Ballet Hispánico's Chris Bloom and Shelby Corona in Michelle Manzanales' If By Chance...

Julie Lemberger, Courtesy NYPL

Upstairs, a duet between Ballet Hispánico's Chris Bloom and Shelby Colona played out across the row of long, narrow tables in special collections. Extensions and backbends unspooled dreamily atop and between the tables as they literally and figuratively danced around one another—without ever looking away from the open books in their hands. It wasn't until the very end of Michelle Manzanales' If By Chance... that the pair finally looked away from their books and, almost blushing, finally made eye contact.

Four members of The Bang Group were hidden in a corner in an area normally only accessible to library staff. The cascading tap rhythms of David Parker's 12x4 echoed in the tight space as the dancers grinningly worked around each other in an even tighter one.

At the end of a darkened aisle of library books, a male dancer in a wheelchair curves an arm around the waist of a female dancer, who stands in a deep lunge as she arches backwards, arms rising around her head.

Heidi Latsky's D.I.S.P.L.A.Y.E.D. (Excerpts)

Julie Lemberger, Courtesy NYPL

A single aisle of the third floor reading room was activated by excerpts from Heidi Latsky's D.I.S.P.L.A.Y.E.D. Three performers from her physically integrated company moved with the quality of specters, haunting and otherworldly.

A man in black trousers and white shirtsleeves arcs into a pose reminiscent of the upward-facing dog pose in yoga; a woman in a red slip dress and black boots balances in an open arabesque, arms stretched to the side and head tipped back to the ceiling. On the floor are white dotted lines and arrows. they are surrounded by spectators forming a wide circle around the darkened, purple-lit space.

Georgina Pazcoguin and Adrian Danchig-Waring perform N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz 12/04/19, choreographed by Jerome Robbins, arranged by Danchig-Waring.

Julie Lemberger, Courtesy NYPL

In the screening room, a film of Robbins' N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz played on a small screen. On the floor were tape marks illustrating the dancers' pathways in the first movement; New York City Ballet principal Adrian Danchig-Waring invited the audience to stand on an X or O, forming a circle around the edge of the space. He and soloist Georgina Pazcoguin danced sections of the work, in homage to the choreographer who, alongside Gegi Oswald, helped spearhead what is now named the Jerome Robbins Audio and Moving Image Archive.

After the site-specific works wrapped up, there was one final treat. American Ballet Theatre's Sarah Lane and NYCB's Gonzalo Garcia came together to perform excerpts from Robbins' Other Dances. It was a particularly poignant choice: In 1976, Robbins made the duet on Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. The occasion? A gala performance at the Metropolitan Opera House benefiting the Library for the Performing Arts.

Dressed in blue, flowy costumes, a male dancer delicately holds the woman's wrists. Both are balanced on one bent leg as the other bends through a parallel back attitude. Their gazes are downcast.

Gonzalo Garcia and Sarah Lane in Jerome Robbins' Other Dances

Julie Lemberger, Courtesy NYPL

Overall, the evening served as a reminder of something that Danchig-Waring perhaps said best: This library and the materials contained within hold "the key to an uncertain future."

Here's to 75 more years.

Latest Posts

Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021