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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

Dreams."

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

arts."

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

floors."

"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

disciplines."

"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

driven."

"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

rental income."

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,"

she notes.

"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

disciplines."

"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,

very exciting."

Mikhail Baryshnikov, McCarter Theater, 91 University

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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