Making Space for Dance: Gibney Dance Is Now One of NYC's Largest Dance Centers

Photo by Christopher Duggan

The week before the grand opening of Gibney Dance at 280 Broadway in lower Manhattan, Gina Gibney gave a tour of the 36,000-square-foot space her company leased in January. As she moved from the ground floor where construction was still underway to the second floor where classes were already in full swing, her merry laugh made her seem more like a child delighted with a new toy than a CEO overseeing a multimillion-dollar renovation. At one point, she gathered her miniature dachshund in her arms and settled into a chair. “I can't believe this," she says. “I'm as surprised as anybody."

In January 2014, Gibney Dance became the successor tenant of the dance studio and performance space that the popular Dance New Amsterdam vacated in 2013 after a long financial struggle. Together with her original space, located five subway stops away at 890 Broadway, Gibney now commands 51,000 square feet of space and a budget of more than $4 million, which puts the organization in a league with New York City's largest dance centers, including The Ailey Studios and Mark Morris Dance Center. And over the months preceding the grand opening, the choreographer and activist at the helm has revealed a vision for the dance community that is as impressive as the physical changes she's made to the space itself.

To many, Gibney, 57, seemed to come out of nowhere. But the path from directing a contemporary dance company of six to managing some of the most desirable dance space in Manhattan was undertaken with remarkable financial acumen.

Her story is not so different from that of many young dancers who move to NYC to pursue a dance career. Arriving in the 1980s with an MFA degree and $300 in her pocket, she initially supported herself by doing freelance word processing work for a law firm at night (and weekends) so she could dance by day. In 1991, she founded her own company, garnering critical respect and developing a reputation as an activist. In 1999, she created an outreach program for survivors of domestic abuse that provided paying work for her company members.

Then the recession hit. “Halfway through 2010, we started getting bad news from our community action funders," Gibney says. “We had already planned our budget for the year and committed to dancers to do workshops. It got bad really fast."

She wasn't sure she could stay afloat. Yet rather than fold, she took the bold course to expand her operations from one studio to three, when space opened up at 890 Broadway. It was the beginning of the business model she uses today: renting out studio space at market rates to commercial enterprises such as Broadway productions in order to generate sufficient revenue to offer affordable space for nonprofits, hold classes, continue her outreach efforts and rehearse her company. “It was no longer working for us to have one studio and all of the infrastructure necessary to run it," she says. (Gibney now operates eight studios at 890 Broadway.)


The formerly under-used lobby of 280 Broadway now features a performance space with multimedia capabilities.Photo by Christopher Duggan


That gamble paid off handsomely thanks to sound advice from her board of directors, including founding chair Pamela van Zandt, who brought a business perspective from her careers at Condé Nast publishing and Estée Lauder. Van Zandt is also Gibney's partner of 25 years.

Gibney and her board weighed carefully the new risks they faced when the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs approached them about 280 Broadway in late 2013. The city had a vested interest in the space, having contributed $2.2 million in support of DNA. And further, unless they could find a qualified cultural tenant to take over the lease, the landlord had the right to rent to a commercial interest. “It was a question of who was really able to do it, had the will to do it and could potentially be successful doing it," says Kathleen Hughes of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. “The monthly cost of sustaining that space is really high."

“This is a board that never questioned the dream, but they wanted to see the plan," Gibney says. “For me it's always been not so much 'Can we do this?' as 'How can we do this?'" she says. That philosophy has guided her business decisions as well as her admirable track record with fundraising.

In the meantime, the $3 million renovation will result in eight studios, three performance spaces and much more. Gibney is particularly enthusiastic about the changes to the ground floor, which was previously underused as a lobby. By turning the staircase into a spiral, there is now a coat check and a performance space with multimedia capabilities. The second floor, along with changing rooms and refurbished studios, now has an art gallery with a café, a digital hub for recording and editing audio and video, a charging zone for mobile devices, a conference room and space for company members and staff to gather, including a kitchen.

Despite the responsibility of managing all this, Gibney remains the same generous-spirited and hardworking friend and colleague she has always been. Her dance teacher at Case Western Reserve University, Kathryn Karipides, recalls a young woman who was “always looking for ways to assist people." “I just knew that she was going to do wonderful things," she says.

And such is the spirit that prevailed as the plan for 280 Broadway has emerged. Gibney sees herself as a steward for the good of all. Toward that end, she held a series of town-hall–style meetings with dancers and teachers with the help of the advocacy organization Dance/NYC. “The sessions helped generate community input on the future of 280 Broadway—its vision and programs," executive director Lane Harwell says.

Gibney has surrounded herself with a staff of highly regarded professionals and partner organizations. Hilary Easton, a longtime choreographer and educator, is creative director of training, education and research. “People feel safe in trusting their support to Gina's company," she says. “She has great values."

Case in point was the decision to bring the Simonson Technique/New Dance Collective faculty from DNA under the Gibney umbrella. Benny Simon was one of the Simonson faculty who were displaced when DNA closed. “We got in touch with Gina and let her know that we had a very large group of students when 280 was our home, and we didn't want to lose that," he says. “She immediately said, 'Of course not! You should be here. Let's figure it all out.' So it was a collaboration." Simon, who has since completed a master's degree, has become Gibney's director of marketing.

In addition to Simonson Technique and Gibney's own Contemporary Forms Program, the center is home to an impressive array of groups, including Movement Research, The Playground (two-hour sessions at $5 for professional dancers to work with visiting choreographers) and Trisha Brown Dance Company.

In June 2014, Craig Peterson (Dance Theater Workshop, Philly Fringe Festival, Philadelphia Live Arts Festival) came on board as director of programs and presentation, tasked with making artistic decisions for the three performance spaces.

And things have only just begun. “I think what is important to note is that there's so much capacity left," says Simon. “So much has happened in the last year, but a lot of that was infrastructure and construction. Now is when the real work starts, and there's a list of things we want to do."

Sure enough, at the grand opening celebration on October 30, Gibney made a surprise announcement of a brand-new initiative: the Dancers' Economic Empowerment Program. Now in the early planning stage, DEEP will become a curriculum to help dance artists gain financial skills, create career plans and develop negotiation and networking skills—all the things Gibney herself exemplifies.

“Dancers often work for little or no pay and under the most challenging conditions," says Gibney. “They want to work so badly—and in fact they must work—and so they accept conditions that are unacceptable."

Nevertheless, the great good cheer and excitement that prevailed during the grand opening festivities seemed to be harbingers of an uptick in the fortunes of NYC's dance world. Upward Spiral cocktails were served to punctuate Gibney's optimism: “We believe in the upward spiral. Our field faces challenges that often feel insurmountable, and the dancers are the most fragile link in the artistic and economic chain. This is something that has to change."

By the Numbers: Gibney Dance Center

890 Broadway: 15,000 square feet with 8 studios

280 Broadway: 36,000 square feet with 8 studios, 3 performance spaces, changing rooms, art gallery, digital lab, charging zone, lecture/conference room, kitchen, coat check, gathering space for lunch and meetings

Paid administrative staff: 24

Interns: 15

Teachers: 100

Population served annually: 547,500

Dance artists served annually: 10,000 (20,000 hours)

Audience capacity: 130, main theater; 70, black-box studio theater; 50, white-box studio theater.

Annual budget: $4,098,136

Renovation budget: $3 million


Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.

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Dancer Diary
Claire, McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."


In 2019, NYCB came calling: Resident choreographer Justin Peck visited Houston Ballet to set a new work titled Reflections. Peck immediately took to Chan and passed his praises on to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. Chan was invited to take class with NYCB for three days in January 2020, and shortly thereafter was offered a soloist contract.

The plan was to announce his hiring in the spring for the fall season that typically begins in September, but, of course, coronavirus postponed the opportunity to next year. Chan is currently riding out the pandemic in Huizhou, Guangdong, China, where he was born and trained at the Guangzhou Art School.

We talked to Chan about his training journey—and the teachers, corrections and experiences that got him to NYCB.

On the most helpful correction he's ever gotten:

"Work smart, then work hard to keep your body healthy. Most of us get injuries when we're tired. When I first joined Houston Ballet, I was pushing myself 100 percent every day, at every show, rehearsal and class. That's when I got injured [a torn thumb ligament, tendinitis and a sprained ankle.] At that time, my director taught me that we all have to work hard, memorize the steps and take corrections, but it's better to think first because your energy is limited."

How it's benefited his career since:

"It's the secret to me getting promoted to principal very quickly. When other dancers were injured or couldn't perform, I was healthy and could step up to fill a higher role than my position. I still get small injuries, but I know how to take care of them now, and when it's OK to gamble a little."

Chan, wearing grey pants and a grey one-sleeved top, partners Jessica Collado, as she arches her back and leans to the side. Other dancers behind them are dressed as an army of some sort

Chun Wai Chan with Jessica Collado. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet

On his most influential teacher:

"Claudio Muñoz, from Houston Ballet Academy. The first summer intensive there I couldn't even lift the lightest girls. A month later, my pas de deux skills improved so much. I never imagined I could lift a girl so many times. A year later I could do all the tricky pas tricks. That's all because of Claudio. He also taught me how to dance in contemporary, and act all kinds of characters."

How he gained strength for partnering:

"I did a lot of push-ups. Claudio recommended dancers go to the gym. We don't have those kinds of traditions in China, but after Houston Ballet, going to the gym has become a habit."

On his YouTube channel:

"I started a YouTube channel, where I could give ballet tutorials. Many male students only have female teachers, and they are missing out on the guy's perspective on jumps and partnering. I give those tips online because they are what I would have wanted. My goal is to help students have strong technique so they are able to enjoy the stage as much as they can."

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

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