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BY DUSICA SUE MALESEVIC | Enthusiasm pulsed in the air as the fifth graders remained in rapt attention of the dancers onstage.
“If you hear my voice, give me a clap,” Thomas Tyger Moore instructed. “If you hear my voice, give me three claps. If you hear my voice, give me six claps.”
The students followed suit, and in the hush that followed, two of the dancers — Calleja Smiley and Emily Tellier — showed how to stand up while being back to back. It was then the students’ turn. They bounded onstage and tried to do the same, to mixed results and giggles.
The recent morning assembly at PS81 in Ridgewood, Queens was part of a program called Hands are for Holding, which uses dance to spur conversations among middle and high school students throughout the city about healthy and unhealthy relationships, bullying, technology, and social media.
“The kids are very receptive to what they see,” Tellier said afterwards, noting that most kids “love to dance, and so using dance that way to communicate this kind of message, I think, is the best point about this. We’re not just talking at them, they’re actually seeing the differences between healthy and unhealthy.”
In between the dances and demonstrating gestures that signal healthy relationships, such as respect, trust and support, someone from the nonprofit Day One, or from the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence facilitates a conversation around what the students saw, Tellier explained.
Hands are for Holding is one branch of a larger organization now known as Gibney, which focuses on social justice work, community, and its beating heart: dance (visit gibneydance.org for more information).
At the center of the organization is Gina Gibney, who founded her eponymous dance company in 1991, and when she last spoke with NYC Community Media in fall 2014, had recently taken on the space at 280 Broadway — in addition to running 890 Broadway.
Now, Gibney Dance recently rebranded as Gibney, expanded its studio space, and has become a presenter of dance.
“People come here and I overhear their conversations on the phones, they say, ‘I’m at Gibney,’” she said in a recent interview at 280 Broadway.
She added, “We feel that we have grown incrementally, but we’re kind of approaching being an institution now, and so we want to have a name that feels a little bit more — rolls off the tongue, simple.”
Gibney reiterated the deep commitment to dance, despite the removal of the word.
“At the same time, think of how many organizations you’ve heard of that are — fill in the blank — dance,” she said. “We think we needed to have a name that really in some way just captured the concept that we are an institution, we do many, many things. Part of what we do is have a resident dance company but we have grown… beyond that.”
That growth has been literal as well. Six new studios — 10,000 square feet of space — recently opened at 280 Broadway.
“First and foremost, dance artists just need space,” Gibney explained. “There is a crisis of space, and we had, before having those six studios, we had 17 studios that were literally full morning to night and we’re turning people away.”
Of the 17 studios before the expansion, she said many of them were not large, and those are needed to serve sizable groups of dancers.
Initially, when Gibney signed the lease at 280 Broadway, there was a subtenant in the back.
“The original space here was 26,000 square feet, our space at 890 is about 16,000 square feet and this was another 10. So at the time, I just thought are you kidding, you know, more risk, more responsibility, more rent,” she said with a laugh.
Then she started to realize the back space was ideal.
“The original space was complicated. There are a few spaces where there are pillars right in the middle of rooms,” she said. “The columns back there just cooperated beautifully, they just lined up, literally, as if… the space was meant to be used as a dance studio.”
It took about 18 months for the renovation.
“We want that back wing to feel like a residency space. So we’re working on mechanisms that would allow us to either rent it to people in blocks of time, or to partner with other organizations to provide residency space, or to use some of our own funding,” she explained.
One of the residencies — called Dance in Process — is aimed at mid–career artists.
“It’s very generous funding. It gives the artist complete access, 24/7, to the space for three weeks,” Gibney said, noting the funding came from the [Andrew W.] Mellon Foundation. “It gives them a really generous fee. It gives them a resource menu. It gives them a budget for artistic advisors, or rehearsal assistants, or some resource connected to their creative process.”
And because Dance in Process was started before the organization was a presenter, artists are under no obligation to create a work to present.
When Gibney took the space at 280 Broadway, she recalled, “We had converted studio C into a white box theater, and the downstairs into a lab, so we now had three performance spaces, and were a somewhat reluctant presenter.”
She added, “I was concerned about the idea of becoming a presenter because presenting is as much about who is not on the stage as it is about… who is in that square of space for that amount of time. Those dynamics at the time seemed somewhat at odds with the character of our organization, or our kind of ethos as a community-minded organization.”
Gibney said they developed separate tracks for the organization — social justice work, training, digital technology, the resident dance company, and presenting. Ben Pryor — the founder of the festival American Realness — is the in-house curator for Gibney.
Class offerings have also increased, and many are down in partnership with Movement Research, and some intensives in partnership with the Joyce, she said.
“We are essentially trying to, in a very sort of thoughtful way, expand offerings around a framework that we have, but in ways that we think are needed by the [dance] community,” she said.
The larger community of Lower Manhattan is also welcome at 280 Broadway, where Community Board 1 has held meetings, as well as other groups.
“I continue to be really energized by the fact that we are across… the street from City Hall,” she said. “It’s just very exciting to me to be a civic player. To be able to provide space to the Progressive Caucus, or to a specific group, or to the community board.”
Gibney said it has been more challenging “to sort out what is the relationship between our actual programming and the Lower Manhattan community.”
To that end, she said the organization is partnering with the nonprofit Theatre Development Fund “where we’re focusing on our own resident company and doing audience development from the neighborhood with that.”
From May 3-5, the Gibney Dance Company will perform two pieces: Amy Miller’s “Valence” and Bryan Arias’ “One Thousand Million Seconds.”
“For many years, the company was a vehicle for Gina Gibney’s work,” Miller, the senior company director, explained by phone. “For the past three years we’ve started the initiative where we invited guest choreographers.”
Miller said she is “resetting an older work” with “Valence,” a piece with a lot “fierce, virtuosic moments” she created in 2009. Somehow, she recalled, she came across a laminated cheat sheet for chemistry, saw valence and its definition, and was inspired to create the dance.
Company co-director Nigel Campbell said by phone, “It’s a wonderfully mixed program.”
Arias’ piece is a new commission, and Campbell called it a “study on memories and moments.”
Gibney Dance Company has five full-time dancers, known as “artistic associates,” which Miller is explained is a model based on three ideas — the dancer as an artist, activist, and advocate.
“Gina has created something so special here,” Campbell said.
For more information about Gibney Dance Company’s May 3-5 performances, go to gibneydance.org/event/gibney-dance-company-amy-miller-bryan-arias/2018-05-03.