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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the June 4, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Misha Builds a New Dream
If you wonder how is it possible that, at the ripe
old age of 55, Mikhail Baryshnikov is still being hailed as our "greatest
living dancer," just think "nimble." Not just nimble feet,
nimble turns, and nimble bravura leaps, but a nimble professional
mind that has allowed the former classical ballet star, born and trained
in the Soviet Union, to realize a stunning succession of "American
From the danseur noble that everyone wanted to watch, one of Baryshnikov’s
first re-inventions was as collaborator with dance iconoclast Twyla
Tharp. Then, after nine years at the helm of American Ballet Theater,
he went on to realize his lifelong dream of performing truly risky
and experimental modern works, co-founding the White Oak Dance Project
with Mark Morris in 1990. (Last year’s touring show, "The Show
(Achilles Heels)" by Richard Move, found Baryshnikov playing the
Greek hero in drag.) Since its inception, White Oak has commissioned
some 50 new works as well as reviving some treasures of the 1960s
Judson Dance Theater, works that many had been feared lost.
Now "Misha" has surprised everyone again by disbanding the
White Oak ensemble to devote his energies to a new Baryshnikov Arts
Center in New York City. And the bonus for those who still thrive
on watching this master of nuance dance is that he is on the road
raising money for the fledgling arts center with a solo program.
Baryshnikov returns for the fourth consecutive year to McCarter Theater
with "Solos with Piano and Not, An Evening of Music and Dance,"
on Friday and Saturday, June 6 and 7, at 8 p.m. Sharing the stage
with Bosnian-born pianist Pedja Muzijevic, the dancer will perform
commissioned solos by Ruth Davidson Hahn, Tere O’Connor, Lucinda Childs,
Cesc Gelabert, Michael Clark, and Eliot Feld. The evening’s musical
accompaniments range from piano works by Robert Schumann and John
Cage to recorded songs of Leon Redbone and the Beatles.
The Baryshnikov Art Center will be housed on the top three floors
of a new, six-story performing arts complex called W37th Street Arts
(and pronounced "West 37th Street Arts"), now being built
at 37th Street and Tenth Avenue. The vision is for an international,
inter-disciplinary center for arts experimentation and collaboration
by a vibrant community of choreographers, dancers, composers, musicians,
filmmakers, actors, directors, visual artists, designers, and writers.
"An art center in New York right now is stupid. Insane. Ridiculous.
Yeah?" Baryshnikov told Jennifer Dunning of the New York Times
last December. "But I think that is what this city and this country
need. In New York City, people used to collaborate and meet
and discuss and have fun together and learn from each other. There’s
no connection anymore, especially with the economic pressures on the
Yet even as White Oak is disbanded, it is far from forgotten. For
more than a decade the company reigned as a pure anomaly in art circles.
Operating under the umbrella of Baryshnikov Productions Inc., a for-profit,
privately held company, White Oak was a dance group that successfully
subsisted on touring fees and ticket sales. It earned a profit and
the bulk of these profits was used to commission new work. As the
company’s executive director, Christina Sterner ran Baryshnikov
Productions with a lean core staff that grew and shrunk according
to the needs of a given project. And White Oak never had a home.
"I think we rented every space in the city," said Sterner
in an interview last week from her home office in Philadelphia. Sterner,
who has worked for Baryshnikov since 1988, has been named managing
director of the Baryshnikov Arts Center.
"For the 10 or 11 years of White Oak we were always nomadic, but
I always looked at space," she says. "I thought it would be
good to own something, not only for ourselves, but to rent out. So
now and then, when things were interesting, I would look at them.
We were always looking for column-free space."
The looking ended in early summer, 2000. This was when developer and
theater operator Alan Schuster read a story in the New York Times
about the scarcity of space for dancers and dance groups, and began
calling a number of the city’s non-profit companies. One of the people
he spoke with was Ross Kramberg, executive director of the Paul Taylor
Dance Company; he in turn called Sterner with the question, "Do
you want to take a meeting?"
At the time of the first meeting in early summer, 2000,
Schuster had an option for the parcel of land at 37th and Tenth Avenue.
His idea was to house two Off-Broadway (500 seats or less) theaters
and include rentable space, Sterner recalls.
"This was one of very few chances to build a new structure in
one of the last affordable areas in the city," she says. Recognizing
the opportunity for both the developer and Baryshnikov Productions,
"All these things came together," she says. "Instead of
renting space from him, we came to the idea of owning the top three
"After that, getting Misha signing on to it was fairly easy. I
think he realized right away that we were getting it at a reasonable
price. He then went full throttle for something he had been thinking
of for a long time, which is the development of young artists in many
"He wants to experiment with a lot of things. But certainly contemporary
dance is at the heart of his sensibility and he will continue to develop
work by young choreographers," she says. The center is considered
an arts crucible for development of work by established artists using
young performers, and also creating a place where established choreographers
can mentor younger artists.
An 18-person artistic advisory panel has already been created to select
participants for this experiment in artistic R&D. Choreographers Merce
Cunningham, Pina Bausch, Trisha Brown, William Forsythe, and Mark
Morris are all on board. Representing other bright lights across the
disciplines are filmmakers Pedro Almodovar and Milos Forman; photographers
Eve Arnold and Annie Leibovitz; authors Susan Sontag and Victor Borovsky;
musicians Michael Tilson Thomas and Gidon Kremer; designers Bob Israel,
Santo Loquasto, and Jennifer Tipton; and directors Rezo Gabriadze,
Ariel Goldenberg, and Peter Sellars.
The first three floors of 450 West 37th Street are designed to house
three theaters of 290, 399, and 499 seats; the smallest of these will
be made available to the Baryshnikov Arts Center (BAC). Meanwhile,
earned income to fully offset operating expenses for the BAC will
be generated by tenant partners, unsubsidized studio rental by arts
groups such as commercial theater and entertainment companies, and
studio rental for advertising, fashion, film, and related industries.
All this is a whole new world for Sterner, who came into the arts
business during an age of plenty and, over her 25 years in arts management,
has learned to make do with next to nothing.
A graduate of University of Pennsylvania (Class of 1978), with a major
in art history, her first job was in the arts. "I had a lot of
interests in the 1970s," she says. "I started out in pre-med.
I had little inking of what the future held for me."
"I started working for Pennsylvania Ballet in 1977, even before
graduating from college, and got my first job there," she says.
In 1981 she became director of marketing for the Walnut Street Theater;
she also began to feel a need for more guidance in the business side
of the arts. She enrolled in the graduate program at the Wharton School
in 1983 and studied marketing for two semesters before taking her
next job as managing director of the Philadelphia Theater Company,
a post she held for seven years before joining Baryshnikov Productions.
"I grew up in a family that loved the arts," says Sterner,
whose family made their home in Harrisburg. "My mother was a homemaker,
who also painted and played piano (which she still does); my father
worked for the Department of Defense and also played the violin."
Although she says she doesn’t play a musical instrument "well,"
her parents took her and her brother to see theater and dance.
"I went to dance class like every little girl and studied ballet
until I reached on pointe. It was a pretty painful experience and
I gave it up after about age 12."
Her older brother, Larry Sterner, started working for the Pennsylvania
Ballet and was general manager of American Ballet Theater for a number
of years. Her sister-in-law is Susan Jones, a former ballet dancer
who has been with ABT for some 30 years and is now ABT ballet mistress.
As Sterner prepares to return to the non-profit side of the arts,
she’s facing a new landscape and a new economy.
"For me, it’s a whole new thing. We’re going to have a home —
and we’ve never even had an office," says Sterner, whose home
office is on Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square. "We’ve been the
prototype of the virtual office — we E-mail, fax, and travel around
the world. Now we’ll have to have more of an infrastructure and I’ll
do more fundraising.
"Up to this point we have subsisted on fees and ticket sales and
not on fundraising. We’ve financed and commissioned new works based
on the money we raise. Right now our model is the for-profit model,
but our product is not commercially driven — our product is artistically
"Our model will change. We’re going into a non-profit mode, but
we’ll try to have a hybrid. We’ll still not have the kind of infrastructure
that most non-profits have — such as a sizable staff. We’ll keep
it as lean as we can, getting the best people we can. Most of the
general operating expense of the building will be paid for by the
Although Sterner will be fundraising, she won’t be going to the usual
sources. "We won’t go to city or state or federal agencies. There’s
a lot of wealth out there — and given the recent tax cuts there’s
going to be more. We want to tap into sources that aren’t as available
to other arts organizations. We are developing other artists who will
emerge in all kinds of fields. We expect the film industry will be
interested in supporting some of the work we do."
The Hollywood industry, she notes, has many wealthy Democrats who
may not have supported Bush’s tax cuts, but will still benefit from
them. "The wealth imbalance is only going to become more so,"
"We want to be a magnet for artists and audiences in the city
and from outside the city," she says. "Baryshnikov is the
glue, the person who attracts people from all over the world and all
areas in the arts."
"We will not have a company that puts together a prescribed season.
Instead we’ll conform our program to the funds. Also, I don’t have
an optimistic view of what’s happening in the economy in this country,
so we’ll always be prudent about the kinds of things we do."
Sterner cites Baryshnikov as "the one person who can match different
"I think he takes the pretension and the self-consciousness out
of creating art," she says. "He allows people to explore many
areas and not feel pressured by their peers — even the most `downtown’
of artists often feel that way. But he has a way of opening their
eyes to new things or to doing things a different way."
What makes this job a good match for you, we ask. "I grew up in
a good time in arts management: We had the opportunity of learning
the field in all its aspects. It was a good time. There were a lot
of committed people and there was money, unlike now, when one feels
starved every step of the way."
New York’s bold new arts center, she knows, will benefit from both
the Baryshnikov legend and the real man’s energy. "Now everything
is driven by Baryshnikov, and this building is going to be driven
artistically. That’s the way it should be," she says. "It’s
full throttle in terms of the plans and ambitions, and it’s very,
Place, 609-258-2787. "Solos with Piano: An Evening of Music and
Dance with Mikhail Baryshnikov and pianist Pedja Muzijevic" includes
premiers created by choreographers Lucinda Childs, Eliot Feld, and
Ruth Davidson Hahn. $40 to $60. Friday and Saturday, June 6 and
7, at 8 p.m.
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