Alyssa Alpine Talks CUNY's CDI Program and Details '5th Year Fest'

by Michael Mahany | 3/7/2019 6:07 PM

Ephrat Asherie Dance. Photo credit: Robert Altman.

For a choreographer in New York City, it can often feel like the city is fighting against you. Trying to figure out how to pay rent, run errands, find time to create new work, and locate affordable rehearsal space — all while battling blizzards, pigeons, and the subway can seem like an epic and unending battle.

And, unless you’re an extremely well established and sought after dance-maker who has companies and theatre producers with boatloads of money knocking down your door, most choreographers in the Big Apple grapple with feeling like physicists  in that they’re trying to establish some impossible balance between space and time.

Luckily for these artists, though, The City University Of New York Dance Initiative, or CDI, was created.

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CDI, which officially launched in 2014, takes the battlefield that is New York City and turns it into an asset. According to CDI, the program utilizes the city’s “vast urban university system,” within the CUNY network of campuses, and now annually awards between 22 and 25 artists with residency space and fees, all through private funding.

This Spring, CDI is celebrating its fifth birthday through a performance festival being called The 5th Year Fest, taking place March 20 through 23 at Baruch Performing Arts Center in Manhattan.

In its first five years, CDI has “subsidized more than 100 residencies for emerging and established NYC choreographers on 13 CUNY campuses in all five boroughs… granted over 5,800 hours of studio and stage time to artists, and attracted 11,500 New Yorkers to performances, open rehearsals, and workshops.”

Initially established in response to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s 2010 report, ‘We Make Do’ — the definitive report that pointed out the categorically lopsided ratio of overpriced rehearsal studio costs to the amount of underused arts space in the five boroughs — a pilot program was created. Under the program's guide, dance and choreographic residencies and performance opportunities were explored on four CUNY campuses. After an initial success, a larger scale program was launched, and in 2014, CDI was born.

According to the initiative’s leadership, “since its official launch in 2014, CDI has subsidized and facilitated a total of 107 residencies—from emerging choreographers to established dance companies—at 13 CUNY colleges in all five boroughs.”

Dance Network recently had a chance to speak with CDI director, Alyssa Alpine, where we were able to discuss the power of CDI, the direction of its future, and the emerging sense of excitement around the 5th Year Fest.

Video courtesy: Amy Guarino/CDI.

Dance Network: Ms. Alpine, before we get into CDI and 5th Year Fest itself, can you tell us a little bit about how you initially found your way to dance?

Alyssa Alpine: I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin and started taking classes at a local dance studio -- the kind that packed jazz, tap, and ballet in one hour! From there, I graduated to “real” ballet classes at the local YMCA and ultimately moved to Minneapolis/St. Paul in high school for more intensive training. I discovered the world of modern dance in college (Columbia University), started working in the office at the Limon Dance Company my sophomore year, and have continued down the rewarding -- if sometimes hair-pulling -- path of arts administration since then. 

Miki Orihara. Photo credit: Antonia K. Miranda.   

DN: It seems CDI was built out of the demand for choreographers needing affordable space and assistance with the fees associated with rehearsals and performances — how does CDI assist with finding spaces? Tell us about some of the non-traditional spaces that CDI has discovered?

AA: Dance has a set of physical space requirements -- large open spaces, sprung wooden floors -- that are increasingly at a premium in New York City, especially in Manhattan. I’ve seen a lot of dance studios that used to rent space close in the past decade. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s 2010 report, 'We Make Do,' concluded that the shortage of affordable rehearsal space in New York City is a perpetual struggle for the dance community, and specifically cited CUNY campuses (City University of New York) as having studios and stages that were underutilized during parts of the year. This was the seed for what became the CUNY Dance Initiative. 

The CUNY system is vast -- 24 campuses spread out across all five boroughs of NYC -- and one of my first tasks, when I started in 2014, was to identify which colleges have facilities that are appropriate for dance. I was amazed by the number of studios and theaters on 14 campuses, sitting empty at times: dance studios are free on the weekends or summers when classes aren’t in session, and theaters have pockets of availability throughout the year. The brilliance of CDI is that it provides a structure for opening these spaces to NYC dance artists who are hungry for places to create and perform their work. Even though it can be a journey to campuses in the boroughs, artists find it worthwhile for the generous size of the studios and the opportunity to work in long blocks of time on large stages. 

We’ve also uncovered extraordinary places for site-specific performances: John Jay College (midtown Manhattan) has a lush landscaped rooftop garden, and City College (Harlem) has an architecture building that has inspired two different CDI projects. Our college partners on these campuses have made dance happen in non-traditional spaces by coordinating with departments outside of their own, which is significant to our broader goal of building a network that supports dance in the public university system.

Choreography by Gabrielle Lamb. Photo credit: Charles Rousse.

DN: Creating new "outposts" and developing "non-traditional" dance audiences in the outer boroughs seems like it's a priority of the program — what benefits have you and your dance-makers seen from cultivating these new spaces and audiences?

AA: We partner with 13 colleges, and only 4 of those are in Manhattan, so much of our activity takes place in the outer boroughs. This automatically shifts the potential audience from the standard Manhattan-centric, dance-going crowd to people in areas closer to these campuses who are less likely to regularly attend concert dance. For example, at the conclusion of rehearsal residencies, Hostos Center for the Arts & Culture (Bronx) and On Stage at Kingsborough (Brooklyn) hold free informal showings for the community. Audience responses in the Q&A’s reveal that they’re curious and connect with something they’ve seen: we hope they’ll have a broader understanding of what dance can be after this type of experience and be more inclined to seek out a performance.

For artists, interacting with audience members from different backgrounds is eye-opening. Dance audiences are often made up of dancers themselves (or friends/family who’ve been strong-armed into tagging along for years), and it’s valuable for artists to hear from new people about what they found beautiful, funny, or meaningful. 

A number of artists have continued their relationship with their host college after their CDI residency. Artists have been hired to teach workshops or as adjunct faculty, invited to choreograph on students, or booked for a return performance.

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DN: As far as CDI itself, how have you seen it grow over the first five years? 

AA: In terms of numbers, our biggest jump was from the pilot program to the formal version of CDI -- 4 partner colleges to 10 in the span of several months! Since 2017, we’ve been working with 13 colleges across all five boroughs to provide rehearsal space and performance opportunities to 22-25 artists each year. We’ve increased our average residency from 40 to 54 hours and our artist fees have gone up. Our college partners have made contacts in academic departments and gotten savvy with scheduling to better connect with faculty and students, so we’ve made inroads on integrating CDI activities into each campus community.

Andrew Nemr. Photo credit: Bret Hartman.

DN: It must be remarkable, not just for the audience, but for you and your fellow creatives, to be able to see such a wide array of dance performance in one night at 5th Year Fest. Everything from Flamenco, tap, modern, to performance art, and hip-hop — could you tell us a little about the selection process for picking your choreographers?

AA: I wanted to put together programs that reflect a representative sample of the 100+ artists we’ve supported over the past five years. I’ve attended the majority of CDI shows in my role as the director, and the variety of dance styles and artistic perspectives is really striking and wonderful. With the 5th Year Fest, I am trying to woo some new fans for these artists, while creating a tantalizing entree into the dance world for new audiences. It’s rare to see two showcase programs with this level of diversity, performed by such high-caliber artists.

DN: What sort of continued growth do you want to see from CDI and 5th Year Fest? Where do you see it going?

AA: I hope we’ll be celebrating our 10th anniversary in five years with another, bigger festival. Between now and then, I’d like to increase our artist fees, formalize a commissioning program, develop partnerships with other presenters and arts service organizations, and provide more direct marketing support to our college partners to get more people interested in seeing dance on a regular basis.


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CDI’s 5th Year Fest’s program consists of two specific programs, each performing two of the four nights of the event.

"Program A (Wednesday, March 20, and Friday, March 22, at 7:30 pm) features a pre-show installation of Heidi Latsky Dance’s living sculpture court, ON DISPLAY; flamenco duo Sonia Olla & Ismael Fernandez; an excerpt from tap master Andrew Nemr’s autobiographical show, Rising to the Tap; a solo by former Martha Graham Dance Company principal dancer Miki Orihara; Princess Grace Choreography fellow Loni Landon; and Urban Bush Women’s signature solo, Give Your Hands to Struggle.

Program B (Thursday, March 21, and Saturday, March 23, at 7:30 pm) leads audiences to the theater with an adventurous site-specific dance by Kinesis Project dance theatre, and features a world premiere by Gabrielle Lamb for her company, Pigeonwing Dance; a solo by Parijat Desai that mixes traditional Indian dance with contemporary influences; MBDance’s danced and spoken-word trio, Up and Down Her Back; and an excerpt of Ephrat Asherie Dance’s freewheeling Odeon."

You can find out more on CDI’s very resourceful website, including information on the residency application process. Each Fall, CDI holds an open call for New York City-based choreographers and dance companies. For tickets and information on 5th Year Festclick here.

You can also follow CDI on social media— through which, they say, they strive to advocate for their community. Follow on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH: Dance Network’s 2017 exclusive sit-down interview with newly installed NYCB Associate Artistic Director, Wendy Whelan

Michael Mahany serves as the New York City Correspondent for Dance Network. He is also a professional actor, musician, dancer, and writer. Follow him on TwitterInstagram, or click here to find out more.

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