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Happy Birthday 92NY

The 92NY hosted a star-studded evening of dance on March 12th with performances by the Limón, Martha Graham, and Alvin Ailey II companies, as well as contemporary choreographers Omar Román de Jesús, Jamar Roberts, and Hope Boykin. The evening celebrated the opening of “Dance to Belong,” a new exhibit at the 92NY that runs through October commemorating the organization’s 150th anniversary and its essential role in dance history. Introductions for the evening were given by Y CEO Seth Pinsky, chair of the board of directors Jody Gottfried Arnhold, and Misty Copeland, along with video introductions by Governor Kathy Hochul of New York and other local representatives. “It’s a birthday party!” Arnhold said.

Performance

92NY 150th Anniversary Gala

Place

92NY, New York, NY, March 12, 2024

Words

Cecilia Whalen

Ailey II perform “Blues Suite” at 92NY's 150th anniversary gala. Photograph by Richard Termine

The 92NY certainly has a tremendous legacy to celebrate. It was established in 1874 “to serve the social and spiritual needs of the American Jewish community” and has expanded to serve a global community with performance programming in every art form and classes of all subjects led by leading professionals in the arts and humanities.

Dance has been a mainstay since the Y’s inception. In the early 1930s, under the direction of Jewish dancer Benjamin Zemach, dance classes were added to the Y’s regular programming. In 1935, under the educational director William Kolodney, the Dance Center was established. 

“Kolodney was a visionary,” Joan Finkelstein, who is the former director of dance and current executive director of the Harkness Dance Foundation, said. “He felt that the highest form of education and recreation was deep immersion in an aesthetic experience in the arts and humanities. He knew he wanted to bring all the arts into the Y, dance included.” 

Martha Graham Dance Company in “Appalachian Spring” at 92NY's 150th anniversary gala. Photograph by Richard Termine

Kolodney was not a dancer or choreographer, but he was drawn to the new, modern dance. He established a board of advisors to develop the Y’s dance programming, including New York Times dance critic John Martin and Doris Humphrey (who later took over as director of the Dance Center in 1944). Some of the first to perform in the Y’s new Dance Center in the ’30s were Martha Graham, Charles Weidman, Hanya Holm, and Humphrey. These dance legends were followed by Agnes de Mille, José Limón, Pearl Primus, Sophie Maslow, Erick Hawkins, and many, many others. 

“From the ’30s through the ’60s, everybody who was doing new dance was presented at the Y—or wanted to be presented at the Y,” Finkelstein said. 

Ailey famously premiered “Revelations” at the Y in 1960. Years before, Janet Collins, after rejecting a position at the Ballet Russe when they demanded that she perform in “white-face,” made her New York debut at the Y. 

“The Y offered a refuge space for artists who couldn’t get opportunities elsewhere because of their cultural background,” said Jessica Friedman, co-curator of “Dance to Belong” with Ninotchka Bennahum and Jeanne Haffner. “In the 1930s, when the Dance Center was starting, not all dance institutions welcomed artists of all backgrounds. Many dance institutions were still segregated. The Y was unique in that it really had an open-door policy.” 

Hope Boykin's “Manifesting Legacy” at 92NY's 150th anniversary gala. Photograph by Richard Termine

Janet Collins went on to earn a lengthy and dazzling list of accolades: Broadway star, dancer with Katherine Dunham, leading dancer (and first Black dancer in history) of the Metropolitan Opera. The 92NY, with whom she continued a long and fruitful relationship, also considered Collins an “expert in Jewish dance and culture.” This distinction, despite Collins being a devout Catholic, accompanied her name in the member bulletin of the 92NY for many years. 

“Collins is best known for being the first Black ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera, but she studied Jewish culture and dance and collaborated with Fred Berk (the 92NY’s former director of Jewish/Israeli Dance) on Jewish folk dance festivals throughout the 1950s,” Friedman said. “This collaboration between Berk and Collins represented an ethos of the 92NY: everyone is welcome to be part of this shared dance community, regardless of differences.”  

In 1937, the Y hosted the first “Negro Dance Evening,” led by Edna Guy, Allison Burroughs, and Katherine Dunham. Talley Beatty, who would go on to perform many times at the Y, performed, along with Asadata Dafora, one of the first dancers to bring West African traditional dance to the concert stage in the United States. 

“Over the years, the curation of dance performances at the 92NY has spanned all cultures and every genre. It has been inclusive and diverse—this has been a marker of dance at the Y,” Finkelstein said. 

Jose Limón’s “There is a time” 92NY's 150th anniversary gala. Photographs by Richard Termine

Inclusion and diversity have likewise been principles of the 92NY’s dance education program. 

“For Kolodney and especially Doris Humphrey, dance was good for everybody—children, adults, professionals and pre-professionals. The aesthetic experience of immersing yourself in dancing and being given an opportunity for your own creative expression, regardless of your level of skill, was spiritually and emotionally good for people. It was an attitude that high quality dance is and should be for everybody,” Finkelstein said. 

As dance performance thrived at the new Dance Center, so did education. All of those first performers—Graham, Weidman, Holm, Humphrey, and others—were also the 92NY Dance Center’s first dance faculty. 

“Education was the original mission of the Y as a whole, and it continues to be,” Erin Lally, current co-executive director of the Dance Center, which is now called the Harkness Dance Center, said. 

“For the early modern dancers, it was about access,” Alison Manning, Lally’s co-executive director, said. “[Through the Y] people could have access to the technique that was required to be a professional dancer in that arena. So, it was an avenue for choreography and expression while also being an avenue for inclusivity for so many other people.” 

When curating the Dance Center’s programming and selecting artists in residence, Lally and Manning say they seek out artists who are also educators. 

“It’s not just about seeing the [choreographic] work that they’re doing, but are they educators?” Manning said. “We’re really looking for people who want to come into our center and engage with kids, adults, or seniors, or work on a curriculum project.” 

Recent artist-in-residence Dorrance Dance developed a tap curriculum for public schools during their residency. Baye & Asa, the contemporary dance duo who were in residence in 2021/22, taught classes on their choreographic process through the 92NY Dance Education Laboratory (which was started by Arnhold and Finkelstein in 1995 and serves current and aspiring dance teachers). 

“The balance between education and performance has always been crucial in how the public understands the Y’s relationship to dance. It’s strongest when it’s an equal balance between those,” Finkelstein said. 

The Harkness Dance Center at the Y features classes in all genres for all ages. Along with the Dance Education Laboratory, it also includes a Dance Movement Therapy program and an annual Future Dance Festival, which features emerging professionals through an audition process. 

“Not only does dance reflect the mission of the Y—tikkun olam (a Hebrew phrase meaning “repair the world”), diversity, community, democratic ideals—the fact that the Y has been steeped in dance so long makes it a premiere cultural organization. [Dance] is the embodied mission.” 

Manning and Lally intended for the March 12th celebratory performance to honor this mission by remembering the original dance titans who graced the early stage of the Y—Limón, Graham, and Ailey—while providing space for contemporary choreographers—Roberts, de Jesús, and Boykin. The performance itself asserted the Y’s intention to uphold its legacy while actively looking to the future. 

“The story is still being written,” Finkelstein said. “Stay tuned.”   

Cecilia Whalen


Cecilia Whalen is a writer and dancer from Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and holds a bachelor's degree in French. Currently, Cecilia is studying composition at the Martha Graham School for Contemporary Dance in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.

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