For ballet fans who have long wondered where the stunning, visually expressive classical dancing in the Metropolitan Opera House or in the new and vibrant David H. Koch Theater for the Performing Arts for which they have long waited will live on, some good news. Lincoln Center’s ballet company, New York City Ballet, is reinventing itself for the 21st century. Its new, $300 million, five-year renewal plan for its vast 86-year-old neoclassical, neoclassical-minded home at Lincoln Center is, in many ways, the most daring undertaking of its various renewal campaigns in the past two decades. New York City Ballet is opening a second, smaller home, complete with production facilities, in the landmarked Baker Building at Lincoln Center’s southern end, and radically reinvigorating its downtown home at the City Center Theater, which will become a smaller, more intimate event center of its own.
The Baker, on West 65th Street, an ornate flourice of Louis Sullivan-style towers with a gem-like exposed brick exterior, has been empty for 20 years. Its lofty, gilded restrooms—though once elegant—have too often been relegated to dingy entertainment, artist’s studios and cosmetic stores. The physical shell of this 10-story complex has been plagued with construction problems and falling soil that have now been corrected.
In the spring of 2016, the company will open its Dance Center in the Baker, then its first new venue since the late 1980s, during its 2015-16 season. It will be a fully functioning arts school with full-time faculty and students. Two wings of the building will be dedicated to state-of-the-art rehearsal studios.
The big, Brutalist-style Baker did not used to resemble its modernist twin: the Hudson Street Building, on the other side of the Hudson River and opened in 1901. A new pipe system brings purified running water to the site, as well as electricity for lighting and air conditioning. Will it all be enough to keep the company, which is losing a quarter of its box office revenue each year, solvent? It will take years before the answers are in. But in the interim, the Baker—which could have easily stayed empty—has stirred into life an elegant, state-of-the-art revival of a classical building that not only gives New York City Ballet a home in the Lincoln Center neighborhood but also will make a case for arts spaces across the city to do the same.
The Baker is a top location to reimagine a theater. It’s an open stretch of solid, solid, solid masonry and rectangular brick set in a spectacular face of overlooks over the Hudson River. The U.S. Supreme Court frequently enters the Hudson River through the Baker, with the New York Public Library down below, and the tower blocks above them the Lincoln Center skyline.
Above the Baker is the Theatre of St. James, a Theatre of St. James, which will become the staging, rehearsal and performance space for the two theaters. The new space, designed by David Rockwell, will be a stark contrast to the opulent, 19th-century, bare-walled performances inside Lincoln Center. Rockwell has remodeled and expanded an existing space on the North Side of Lincoln Center, renovating 2,200 seats in 20,000 square feet of new space. The new work in the theater will begin with Solo Echo—a mixed-company dance with a modern approach—performed in January by New York City Ballet.
The centrepiece of the new arts complex is a striking reimagining of the historic City Center Theater, where the company will mount the shows it has long wanted to put on but could not afford, including contemporary works by visiting choreographers. Designer Peter Marino has updated and expanded the previously box-shaped, 23,000-square-foot main theater by 4,500 seats. Staircases leading from the second to third levels will be wider and will serve as smaller dressing rooms for the dance companies. On the top floor, a performance area for standing, seated audiences is being built in a second, temporary theater wing, which will also serve as the company’s design and administrative offices.
The New York City Ballet’s efforts to reinvent the Lincoln Center box office are just the beginning of what is still in the very early stages of re-imagining its facility. The history of New York City Ballet tells us that both its robust renewal and future promise can’t be fully realized if the company has to leave Lincoln Center because it can’t afford its ever-rising costs.