Daniel S. Burnstein
It’s hard to imagine New York bereft of artists.
Few absences would dull the city’s reputation more convincingly. And yet a bleak economic climate, ever-escalating rents and living expenses make the likelihood far from intangible.
From crisis comes camaraderie however, as demonstrated by a new nonprofit performance space in Williamsburg, the Center for Performance Research (CPR) which opened its doors this week.
The facility has a variety of selling points: It’s the first environmentally conscious space of its kind in Brooklyn; it aims to promote community engagement and education; and it’s co-founded by two of the city’s most respected names in dance, Jonah Bokaer and choreographer John Jasperse.
The three-year collaborative project opened for operations Feb. 2 and welcomed its first renter, the Trisha Brown Dance Company. And for Jasperse, the facility has arrived at a critical time.
“I truly feel that this is a last stand in terms of artists really being able to work affordably in New York City,” he says, having observed the displacement of artists since his arrival in the 1980s. He explains that it’s no longer a just a question of artists moving from Manhattan to Brooklyn to avoid rent increases—the situation is more urgent. “It’s really gotten to a density where there’s a question about whether artistic process can really remain local,” he says.
Bokaer echoes such concerns, outlining how CPR’s name itself embodies the much needed resuscitation of the city’s arts centers. “Part of the reason why we called it CPR is the acronym can be read as a response to crisis,” he says. The gentrification of areas like Williamsburg has displaced artists and longtime residents and Bokaer describes how the “condo craze” has made the area a treacherous one for local creatives. Even since his involvement establishing CPR began in 2006, many local arts spaces have had to close due to soaring rents. In fact, the facility’s location is surrounded by the new generation of real estate. “You look around this one block radius, there’s nine condo developments,” he says.
Amidst the hyper-evolution of New York real estate, the aim of the facility is to provide “a new model for sustainable arts infrastructure in dance and performance” and the green-friendly nature of the 4,000-square-foot space is a key element of that. Located on the ground floor of Greenbelt, a building designed with specific environmental initiatives in place, CPR is zoned as a community facility. The building’s upper four floors are residential, the sale of which subsidize CPR’s nonprofit space.
Greenbelt is in fact Brooklyn’s first private green development to qualify as a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold project, LEED being a certification program that ensures the creation of high performance green buildings. Bokaer outlines how it has been developed according to strict guidelines, with longevity, minimal emissions and low energy costs in mind.
“A theater or performance space usually uses light, sound and video, which all consume an enormous amount of energy,” Bokaer says. “We’re going to be saving probably about an eighth of the power of a normal theatrical facility.”
Engaging with CPR’s philosophy of providing an affordable, sustainable facility, a variety of ensembles has expressed interest in the venue. Artist Robert Wilson will be developing a work there for the Guggenheim in April, CPR is currently in discussions with the new media enthusiasts at Bitforms Gallery and Israeli artist Iri Batzri may also use the space. So too, Jasperse will prepare projects at the facility and Bokaer plans to develop “a duet studying memory” there, a commission for the National Academy of Sciences.
“I think our appetite for what performance research will look like is pretty vast,” Bokaer says, explaining that the $6-$15 hourly rental fees at CPR are an obvious draw. “It’s a public program so we’ll probably have a great diversity of renters.”
The financial structure behind CPR is also an anomaly. Bokaer’s Chez Bushwick Inc. and Jasperse’s Thin Man Dance Inc. are the parent companies of CPR and have made the facility economically viable (along with funding from the Department of Cultural Affairs).
“It’s very rare for dance organizations to partner in general but also in terms of real estate,” says Bokaer. CPR is unique in this manner as it’s unusual for dance and performance organizations to own their facilities. Indeed, the Trisha Brown Company recently closed its studio and the Paul Taylor Dance Company will lose its Soho facility (and home for 20 years) in April to an expanding Banana Republic store.
“There you have historical legends of American modern dance who do not have adequate work space,” says Bokaer. “That’s another reason this is a dynamic project because [CPR] puts that issue in the foreground and it says ‘Dance needs space. And it needs permanent space in New York.’”
Undoubtedly CPR represents a new model for performance centers and how dance companies operate, deterring from traditional American models which tend to be characterized by a single choreographer with a singular vision. “I think that a dance company can be a different thing now,” says Bokaer. “It can be a cultural organization, or a space, or it can have a larger generative power.”
Jasperse, who’s been a friend of Bokaer for almost a decade, affirms the importance of the partnership, explaining that neither of their organizations could have established CPR individually. “I firmly believe we’re going to demonstrate the power of this kind of model,” he says. “We’re taking a risk. But hopefully we will serve as an example that defies certain ideas of where real estate and arts organizations are necessarily headed in the city.”