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.

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I'm a Professional Dancer With Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Here's Why Dance Companies Need to Start Prioritizing Mental Health

My name is Abi Stafford, and I have generalized anxiety disorder.

I've had this "hook" in my mind for how I'd open an important essay my entire dance career, but I was never ready to talk about it, until now.

I might be the only dancer to say this, but the best change to result from the coronavirus shutdown is company class moving to Zoom.

As a kid, my teachers encouraged competition between students. While it undoubtedly helped push me, all these years later I still struggle with unhealthy levels of competitive feelings in class. But on Zoom, I don't have to compare myself to anyone, and it feels great. I can dance freely because no one is watching and critiquing my abilities.

When the shutdown started, I was preparing to return to New York City Ballet after a hiatus. I had taken a leave of absence since December 2019, the middle of Nutcracker season, to focus on my mental health.

As NYCB underwent leadership transitions during the last few years and the culture among the dancers shifted, I had developed new feelings of anxiety. Some dancers felt more emboldened to ask for roles they wanted, envisioning exciting career possibilities. Others quietly wished casting choices would remain the same and sensed a more uncertain path. With my brother as artistic director, workplace dynamics collided with my personal life. Casting disappointments jabbed me painfully, and it became hard to find a corner in the theater where my soul felt safe.

It was difficult to officially inform the company that I needed to take a leave because I'd been burned when I'd shown my anxiety before. Back when Peter Martins was in charge, I had an anxiety attack backstage prior to Theme and Variations. I felt too insecure, too scared, too tired, and I couldn't fathom performing. He offered me en­coura­ge­ment at the time, but, several years later, he brought up the episode unexpectedly, pointing to that painful moment to explain why I wasn't reliable. The experience solidified that I should never show emotional vulnerabilities or weaknesses.

Fast-forward to December 2019. When I finally let myself stop dancing, literally mid-rehearsal, some colleagues tried to talk me out of it. While well-intentioned, their words made me feel worse because I started to question my choice. But it was the right decision for me. I have been focusing on my mental wellness, family and pursuing my law degree to heal my spirit as quarantine carries on.

I have lived and performed with (sometimes crippling) anxiety for my entire career, and I'm nowhere near the only one who's struggled. I know of a dancer who picked up her bag and quit in the middle of a rehearsal. One time a young dancer timidly asked a group of older dancers whether ballet company life was hard for them. Upon emphatic replies of "yes," he said, "I thought it was just me. Everyone walks around like they are just fine."

Dancers feel immense pressure from management to constantly be perfect onstage. Yet, we are at the mercy of our bodies. Those two factors are an excellent recipe for anxiety. Some dancers cry a lot. Others call out sick when they're too anxious to perform. Some even choose to retire altogether—far too young.

There needs to be more mental health support within dance companies. Psychological services should be made available to all dancers and artistic staff—including ballet masters. At my company, they're under an intense amount of pressure to prepare the vast repertory, and all are former NYCB dancers who shared similar experiences, stresses and pain during their own careers.

Overall, everyone needs to listen more. Artistic management could send out anonymous surveys to assess what areas need improvement. Companies could hold talk-back sessions with dancers to open up the lines of communication about what's working and what's not. We need to make it acceptable for dancers to take care of their mental health. We need to stop training dancers (explicitly and implicitly) to hide their anxiety for fear of losing performance opportunities.

It is time to begin the conversation, because I worry about the ongoing suffering of dancers if this is not addres­sed. I worry that company leadership will continue to view my very real struggles with my mental health as a weakness. Most of all, I worry that the next generation of artists will continue to suffer as too many of their predecessors have.