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By October 1, 2018News, Writing

Originally posted Aug. 31, 2018 by Brian Seibert for the New York Times

Flipping for Dance in the Catskills


ROUNDTOP, N.Y. — Perched on 175 acres at the end of a rising road in the Catskill Mountains, surrounded by protected forest and deep vistas, the Petronio Residency Center here is an isolated retreat. It’s also luxurious, with a house chef and an air-conditioned studio. The veteran choreographer Stephen Petronio opened it this summer as a research and development site for fellow dancemakers. Subsidized and well-fed, they can try things out, free from the anxieties of renting work space by the hour. They can dig deeper and explore.

But, as Mr. Petronio recently remarked over one of those chef-created meals, “If you’re coming here to get away from the New York dance world, forget it!”

He was half-joking, but dancewise, the neighborhood is getting crowded. A watershed moment comes on Sept. 1, just down the road in Catskill, N.Y., when the tap king Savion Glover performs for the grand opening of Lumberyard Contemporary Performing Arts. That’s another creative residency center and a big one, with artist housing and a 7,000-square-foot performance space: a whole former lumberyard converted into a sort of factory for the finishing not of wood but of contemporary dance.

Neither Lumberyard nor the Petronio center is the first dance residency site in the Catskills and the Hudson River Valley. The Kaatsbaan International Dance Center in Tivoli, near Bard College, opened in 2000. The smaller, more experimental Mt. Tremper Arts, located a little west of Woodstock, is now in its 11th season.

Dancers from Stephen Petronio’s company rehearsing at the Petronio Residency Center.CreditJulieta Cervantes for The New York Times
All these institutions were created in response to the same problem: ever-rising real estate prices in New York City separating chronically underfunded choreographers from the time and space they need to work. In his new Catskills aerie, where his New York-based company will rehearse occasionally, Mr. Petronio laughed about decades of being priced out of one neighborhood after another: SoHo, the East Village, Williamsburg.

Property is much cheaper up here, though getting less so all the time. The stress-reducing, perspective-shifting, inspirational influence of nature is a bonus.

In gentrifying Hudson, just across the river from Catskill, more and more New York dancers and choreographers, Jonah Bokaer and Adam Weinert among them, have put down roots. The big-name choreographer Lucinda Childs has moved nearby, too.

The local dance performance calendar is also growing denser. Both Kaatsbaan and Mt. Tremper present shows, as does PS21, which recently expanded from a tent in a Chatham apple orchard to a black-box theater. Last year, the Hudson Opera House reopened in Hudson after extensive renovation. Now called Hudson Hall and directed by Tambra Dillon, who used to work for Merce Cunningham’s company, it has been hosting an impressive array of dance programs.

One weekend in July, as Mr. Petronio’s company danced at Hudson Hall, the acrobats of Streb Extreme Action performed feats of daring at the Lumberyard construction site. The Streb performances were part of a teaser series that Lumberyard has been presenting all summer, mostly in local theaters like Hudson Hall (which has also been storing Lumberyard’s seating). Meanwhile, about 20 miles south of all this, at Bard College, Pam Tanowitz’s “Four Quartets” was having its soon-to-be-raved-about premiere.

Adrienne Willis, Lumberyard’s executive director, left; and Stephen Petronio, who recently opened the Petronio Residency Center.CreditLauren Lancaster for The New York Times
The increase in activity is exciting, but as more and more dance residencies and presenters crop up, some of the people in charge have begun to express concerns about overcrowding even as they float dreams of synergy. Will the competition for financial support and audiences be zero sum? Or might the influx be beneficial to all, turning the region into a cultural destination, like the Berkshires?

Adrienne Willis, Lumberyard’s executive director, takes the sunnier view. At the construction site this summer, after showing off the many flexible aspects of the design, she made the Berkshires analogy. She spoke of “a good-will tour” she had made, visiting the other local presenters, and of how she had urged Mr. Petronio to find property nearby. A feeling of “we’re all in this together,” she said, was part of what attracted her to the area.

Up until two years ago, Lumberyard Performing Arts was the American Dance Institute, located behind a strip mall in Rockville, Md. After Ms. Willis was hired in 2010, the nonprofit organization, which had been founded as a ballet school, discovered a new niche as a technical residency incubator, giving contemporary dance productions a week or more of the technical rehearsals that usually get squeezed into a day or two. Some residencies culminated in on-site performances for a paying public: out-of-town tryouts before official premieres in New York City and elsewhere.

Demand proved high, but so did the rent, prompting a move. Why to Catskill? Well, Ms. Willis pointed out, many New York City theaters dictate that out-of-town tryouts happen at least 100 miles outside the city limits. Catskill is 101.

And the state government offered other enticements, including a $500,000 development grant. State Senator George A. Amedore Jr., one of Lumberyard’s many political supporters, sees the organization as integral to the revitalization of the region, and speaks of the tourists and other businesses it might attract. “It’s a big boon that we haven’t seen in Greene County for a long time,” he said. As a symbol of the economic transition from waning industry and abandoned mills to culture and tourism, Lumberyard is hard to match.

The dance studio at Petronio Residency Center (and its organic herb and vegetable garden) in Roundtop, N.Y. Opened this summer by the veteran choreographer Stephen Petronio, the center is a research and development site for fellow dance-makers.CreditJulieta Cervantes for The New York Times
Even so, Ms. Willis said that traditional providers of arts funding found the mission of Lumberyard confusing. She realized it would need to generate its own revenue. And so Lumberyard decided to build a theater that could function in two ways: It can, Ms. Willis said, be configured to mimic the dimensions of any theater in New York — fulfilling its original purpose — or it can work as a soundstage, the only one in the region.

This way, Ms. Willis can not only accommodate arrangements like one that provides residencies linked to debuts at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; she can also rent out Lumberyard for film and TV production. She can, in effect, access the deeper pockets of film and TV producers to subsidize the development of contemporary performing arts.

Since Catskill is in one of the counties that provides an enhanced state tax incentive for film production companies, film studios are very interested, Ms. Willis said. She also cited an economic impact study projecting that a fully operational Lumberyard would generate $13 million in related business for the town.

Film and TV money may have something to do with why Ms. Willis isn’t worried about competition. But she insisted that the Petronio company’s performances at Hudson Hall on the same weekend as Streb’s appearances at Lumberyard helped both their box offices. Increasing the options increases the audience, she believes. (The preview series, she said, has been sold out.)

In any case, ticket sales aren’t the main source of income for these residency centers. The start-up capital for the Petronio center, which isn’t zoned for performances, came from the sale of artwork donated by the British sculptor Anish Kapoor, and more artwork (by Marina Abramovic and Merce Cunningham) hangs on the walls, also for sale. The photographer Cindy Sherman paid for the garden, but individual garden beds can be named for an underwriter and the whole place can be rented for, say, a yoga retreat.

However the money comes in, the central goal is to support the creation of dance — the beginnings of the process at the Petronio center, the end stage at Lumberyard. The final product will still be consumed in the theaters of New York City, but increasingly, the growing will happen up the Hudson River.

A version of this article appears in print on Sept. 2, 2018, on Page AR8 of the New York edition with the headline: On Solid Footing in the Catskills. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

© 2018 The New York Times Company


A version of this article appears in print on Sept. 2, 2018, on Page AR8 of the New York edition with the headline: On Solid Footing in the Catskills.