February 14, 2009

What's On at The NYPL for the Performing Arts

Feel like going to the theater or the ballet, but don't have a ticket? I've got the next best thing, and it's free!

Head on over to Lincoln Center, follow the blinking lights through the maze of construction, and enter the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. This is no ordinary library. Sure, there are plenty of books, and you have to be quiet, and they have a huge selection of audio and video material available to borrow and enjoy, but what is really special about this library are the exhibitions currently on view in the public galleries.

On the main level is "Curtain Call: Celebrating a Century of Women Designing for Live Performance". Produced in conjunction with the League of Professional Theatre Women, this exhibition documents the work of over 140 female designers of costumes, lighting and stage sets for the ballet, opera and musical and dramatic theater with drawings and sketches, mock-ups and models, still photographs and film clips and at least a hundred actual costumes.

Tracing the history of live performance from the installation of electrical lights, the avant garde approach to performance by innovators such as choreographer Loïe Fuller, and society's acceptance of women working both on the stage and behind the scenes, this exhibition covers pioneers from the 19th Century through current Broadway productions. While I was not surprised that women were prominent creators of costumes (and thoroughly enjoyed seeing the original costumes on display), nor that set design has been male dominated until very recently, I found it fascinating that lighting design has been the provenance of women since its inception.

This is almost a sentimental journey though performances from "Avenue Q" to "Turandot" with a sprinkling of Shakespeare for good measure. In fact, it's hard to tear oneself away but I knew there was something else to see on the lower level...

Downstairs in the Vincent Astor Gallery is a brand new exhibition that pays homage to the Dance Theatre of Harlem's 40th Anniversary. Founders Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook could scarcely have imagined how the world would change when they opened the Dance Theatre School in a remodeled garage in the heart of Harlem in 1969. Conventional wisdom at that time held that blacks could not possibly do classical ballet as their bodies and their culture were not suited to the art form. Mr. Mitchell, the first black principal with the New York City Ballet, knew this was not so, and together with Mr. Shook a white ballet teacher, encouraged by the estimable Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine, founded what was to become the first truly color blind ballet corp.

The rest of the story is legend with the Dance Theatre of Harlem now recognized world-wide as a major classical ballet company with first rate dancers and productions. It did not happen without bumps in the road and this exhibition traces the development of the troupe with photos, posters, programs, memorabilia, videos, and costumes documenting their performances here and abroad. With interesting anecdotes like Mr. Mitchell's insistence on bucking 300 years of tradition and dyeing the dancers' tights and toe shoes to match the color of their skin, and his creation of the "V for Victory" formation pose now standard in publicity shots for the company, this is a small but all encompassing look at a New York institution with global significance.

2009 Dance Theatre of Harlem Performance Ensemble

One special item on display is an enormous puzzle created by my neighbor, Frank Bara, in commemoration of the first 20 years of Dance Theatre of Harlem's founding. It is an intricate and fascinating documentation of the company and its history all cleverly cut out of wood and painted in Mr Bara's kitchen.

Both "Curtain Call" and "Dance Theatre of Harlem" are on view at the NYPL until May, 2009.

No comments: