Dance Theater Workshop
A vital performing art center and producer, Dance Theater Workshop (DTW) epitomizes the use of innovation and program expansion to sustain an organizational mission to nurture artists, while broadening the audience base, interactive dialog, and public context for creative work. Founded in 1965 by Jeff Duncan, Art Bauman, and Jack Moore, DTW began as a choreographic collective, furnishing sponsorship and practical support to emerging artists. A multifaceted approach has resulted in eight separate programs that provide visibility, resources, and services to independent artists, as well as increased public involvement in the arts. From a home base at The Bessie Schönberg Theater in Chelsea, DTW has reached locals through such neighborhood opportunities as Family Matters and has enabled international performers to cross cultural boundaries with The Suitcase Fund. Nearly 1000 emerging and mid-career artists have had work produced by DTW, under the executive direction of David R. White from 1975-2003. Additional recognition has been generated for artists by DTW's New York Dance and Performance Awards (a.k.a. The Bessies), initiated in 1983. DTW won the 1989 Village Voice OBIE Award for sustained achievement in theater presentation. In 2011, DTW merged with the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Dance Company to form a new organization known as New York Live Arts. (www.newyorklivearts.org)
Dance Theater Workshop (1965-2011)
by Elizabeth Zimmer
Founded in a Manhattan loft at 215 West 20th Street, the original Dance Theater Workshop accommodated 50 people in a performing space nestled between Jeff Duncan’s kitchen and his bedroom. Run as a choreographers’ collective by Duncan, Art Bauman, and Jack Moore, it provided exposure and mutual support to emerging artists whose aesthetic was slightly less experimental than the “postmodernists” headquartered further downtown. Dancers like Linda Tarnay, Kathy Posin, Tina Croll, Wendy Perron, and Wendy Summit, all graduates of Bennington College where Moore taught, showed work at DTW, along with Frances Alenikoff, Martha Clarke, James Cunningham, Deborah Jowitt, Ze’eva Cohen, Kenneth King, Elizabeth Keen, Rudy Perez, and others.
As well as providing many opportunities to show work in the tiny space, DTW organized shows in other theaters around the city, and received funding from the Dance Touring Program of the National Endowment for the Arts to take its “professional touring unit” on the road with programs of new work, visiting college campuses around the country, and also offering seminars in dance history and criticism, technique classes, and workshops in technique, improvisation, choreography, and music, sound, and lighting for dance.
David R. White, a generalist who had been a dancer, actor, writer, and filmmaker, became DTW’s first full-time employee in 1975, as it moved to a new space at 219 W. 19th Street (a small theater upstairs over a tire store, originally renovated by Jerome Robbins as the American Theater Laboratory, his own experimental studio). The house sat 100, and the facility included an additional dance studio, modest dressing-room space, a small lobby, an entryway with a box office and a bulletin board widely used by the dance community (this writer found her first arts job in New York by way of a notice posted there). Compared to Duncan’s loft around the corner, it was palatial. The little auditorium was named the Bessie Schönberg Theater, after a dance teacher who inspired generations of artists.
Through the portal of the new DTW and onto its stage came most of the major talents of the last quarter of the 20th century, primarily dancers and choreographers but also including performers in other disciplines, such as actress Whoopi Goldberg, clown Bill Irwin, and juggler Michael Moschen. White instituted programs like “Split Stream,” which let two artists share a weekend of shows; a late-night music series; the “Out-of-Towners” series, which brought dance troupes from around the country during the slow weeks of summer, so they had a chance to gain audiences and press attention; a poetry and prose series; the Economy Tires Theater, named for the tire store downstairs, and also a late-night operation focusing on new and experimental work. DTW became a model for dance organizations worldwide, creating self-help structures so artists could support each other.
Renowned choreographers who launched their New York careers at DTW include Bill T. Jones, Mark Morris, David Parsons, Bebe Miller, Donald Byrd, Molissa Fenley, Ann Carlson, Susan Marshall, and the team of Dan Froot and David Dorfman. Many artists presented there have won MacArthur “genius” awards. There is hardly a figure under 30 in the country’s dance community whose life has not been touched by the place and its programs.
White was instrumental in establishing the Suitcase Fund, which brought international artists to this country and sent local stars on the road. In 1991 the program helped bring Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s troupe on a tour that visited New York with stops in Miami, Seattle, and Minneapolis.
At first, most of the programming was subsidized rental: the artists paid a fee and kept most of the box office take. Over time the organization did more commissioning; artists were given money to create and perform new work.
During his tenure at DTW White won a Village Voice “Obie” Award for Sustained Achievement, honors from Dance/USA, New York State and New York City, and the Capezio Award in 2000. DTW also “instigated” the “Bessie” awards, first given in 1983 to recognize achievement in the experimental dance community and now much more broadly applied to achievements in dance.
In the early 1980s, the DTW staff began searching for a larger, more functional space, investigating warehouses, historic buildings, even an old ferry terminal downtown. They contemplated moving to Brooklyn. In the late 1990s, real estate prices dropped and funding was acquired to purchase their building on West 19th Street. They sold the air rights to a developer, who put up an 11-story building; DTW got the lower three floors plus the basement. This facility, seating almost 200 and boasting a professional stage four times the size of the old one, opened in October, 2002.
In 2003, White reorganized, and his longtime director of operations, Philip W. Sandstrom (on staff since 1980), who had designed the new theater space, was let go. The organization went heavily into debt to keep operating. A few months later, the board asked White to leave, replacing him with a team including Cathy Edwards and Craig Peterson as co-artistic directors and Marion Dienstag as executive director. When Dienstag left, Stephen Greco was hired; he lasted a year as executive director, replaced by Andrea Sholler. Carla Peterson became artistic director on the departure of Edwards and Craig Peterson.
By 2009, facing an enormous debt and decreases in funding, the DTW board went looking for partners. Choreographer-director Bill T. Jones, seeking a headquarters in Manhattan, came onboard. He got a home for his company, a studio space, a theater, and the title of executive artistic director. Jean Davidson, executive director of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, became the chief executive officer of the new non-profit. Peterson remained as artistic director.
The unexpected result of this new partnership was a decision to change the name of the organization to New York Live Arts. At a public meeting in early 2011, asked why the original name had been dropped, Jones observed that “Now, in the larger culture, dance is viewed almost like mime.” His aim is to create “a larger cultural footprint, a home for me as a thinker in the art world.”1
The first season under the new moniker , in 2011-2012, included a “Replay” series, kicking off with a two-week retrospective of early work by Jones and his late partner Arnie Zane, as well as repeats of successful earlier programs by John Kelly, Richard Move, Yvonne Meier, Reggie Wilson, John Jasperse, and Big Dance Theater. Continuing for a fifth decade is the “Fresh Tracks” program, providing support and exposure to emerging artists. As of 2011, the new management team is designing a two-year residency for mid-career choreographers. Community outreach programs in many media have been scheduled.
Ticket prices have risen dramatically from the original two-dollar “suggested contribution”; in late 2011 they sometimes cost as much as $40, with discounts for members and students. Various media presentations are visible in the lobby windows and on its walls. But DTW’s original mission, to empower emerging and independent artists, remains very much in place.
1. Elizabeth Zimmer, “Dance Matters: Power Merger,” Dance Magazine, September 2011.
Elizabeth Zimmer writes for Ballet Review, Dance Magazine, Metro, and other publications. She edited the dance section of The Village Voice (1992-2006) and reviewed ballet for the Philadelphia Inquirer (1997-2005). She has covered dance in cities across North America, and taught writing and dance history at several universities. She edited Body Against Body: The Dance and other Collaborations of Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane (Station Hill Press, 1989) and Envisioning Dance for Film and Video (Routledge, 2002), and developed a dance history curriculum for urban schools.Her one-woman show, North Wing, played off-off-Broadway. She has studied many forms of dance.
Selected Resources for Further Research
The Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library holds more than 700 archival videos of performances at Dance Theater Workshop, as well as audio interviews with Jeff Duncan, Art Bauman and Bessie Schönberg; the papers of Bessie Schönberg and Jeff Duncan, and many clippings and journal articles relating to DTW.
Dance on: Jeff Duncan. Produced by Video Workshop for Dance and Theatre; directed by William Hohauser, 1984.
Dance Theater Workshop : 40 Forward. Produced by Joseph Di Mattia, 2006. Celebration of DTW’s 40th anniversary.
Hundreds of archival videos of performances at DTW are held by the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library.
Books and Articles
Tarnay, Linda, ed. Dance Theater Workshop: Celebrating 35 Years (a souvenir journal). New York, NY: DTW, 2000.