Research

Don’t Stop and Criticize–Go

Dances at a Gathering (1969) is one of Jerome Robbins’ most acclaimed ballets. Danced to Chopin, it is a meditation on relationships and what is revealed when people move together, alongside one another, in companionship. Robbins is rarely sweet—and that’s a word that may be too close to saccharine for it to have a less tainted meaning—but there is an innocence in this ballet that feels unweighted by drama. And drama is something that Robbins is well-known for, both in creating tension and meaning in dance, and in the process of choreography. Read more…

It is the 60th anniversary of the musical and 2018 marks the centenary of the births of Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins. So a German crew has been filming me all week for an upcoming documentary on West Side Story–which included riding through Manhattan in a 1952 cab! And this weekend I’ll be speaking at the Brattleboro Literary Festival about A Place for Us. West Side Story lives.

Martin Segal: Dollars and Joy

I’m back in the archives going through the papers of Martin Segal. Few in the arts might know Segal now but his legacies are everywhere: in the Martin E. Segal Theatre at CUNY, the Lincoln Center awards in his name that support rising artists, and the Film Society of Lincoln Center itself which he co-founded. But those legacies are only the most obvious. He was central to the arts in New York for over fifty years—and not just as a financial supporter. Segal served on the board of major institutions (MOMA, City Center); chaired Lincoln Center Inc. for five years; conceived and started the International Festival of the Arts; and consolidated the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs. He was a part of almost every endeavor that I have been studying over the last couple of years. Read more…

Culture City

In postwar New York, the consolidation of a municipal cultural policy shifted the debate about the role of the arts in the city from architecture and buildings to the outdoor environment; from established institutions to activities on the streets and subways; and from a time-bound rehearsed performance to the spectacles of the everyday. If Lincoln Center came to embody the importance of the arts in New York in this era, so too did Jane Jacobs’ “sidewalk ballet” and the common belief that the city’s most compelling attribute was its “theater of the streets.” This book explores how the arts became embedded in structure, policy, economy, streets, habits, schools, subways—and what it means to be a New Yorker.

In progress; photo “Hamlet,” 1964, Central Park (NYPL)

West Side Story lives! New York Public Library has digitized nearly 1400 pictures of the making of the Broadway show, and the curator Doug Reside has animated a few series of the photographs here. Google Cultural Institute will feature an exhibition about the show, to which I am contributing. For now, enjoy running down the streets of New York in 1957 with Maria and Tony (Carol Lawrence and Larry Kert)!

Dancing the Cold War

In 1960, the British Prime Minister told Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to “get cool, boy.” (Maybe if the Prime Minister had persuaded Khrushchev to dance, as in “Cool” from West Side Story, the admonition might have been more effective.) Hear more at this conference February 16-18 at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University (schedule here).

When Musicals Become Politics

Recently the musical Hamilton became a political hot potato–again. Brendon Victor Dixon of the cast read a statement directed to one audience member, Vice-President-Elect Mike Pence, a plea that the musical’s vision of a diverse America be the vision of the new administration who would “work on behalf of all of us.” President-Elect Trump denounced the statement as rude and asked for an apology. Read more…

I was invited to take the page 99 test on A Place for Us: “Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you,” said Ford Madox Ford. My response here.

Mambo!

May I suggest that no book party is complete without dance—at least not one that looks at West Side Story! Here are Michael McILwee and Felicity Stiverson performing part of “Dance at the Gym.” Books, dance, the murals of José Clemente Orozco (with family in the background): my worlds collide.

Research as a Public Good

As I return to research myself, I’ve been asked to be a member of the New York Public Library’s Research Advisory Group. It’s an honor to be among such distinguished company and to be asked to think about how this stalwart institution can strengthen its mission in research. How to articulate, argue for, and act upon research as a public good? Keep us honest and accountable. Send suggestions and comments.

New School Histories

NSSR, 1969, New School Archives

Histories of the New School are accumulating: video here of Mark Larrimore and I contending with the question “What Does It Mean to Be a Progressive University?” for Staff Development Day. And I took up the topic of “Women at The New School” here.

A Center for Dance

Yesterday I gave a talk at the Center for Ballet and the Arts about other centers–City Center and Lincoln Center. The tangled relationship between these two institutions reveals the ideals, politics, and challenges of the arts in New York, especially for dance. In short, ballet won at Lincoln Center. Both the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre have their home there. Other forms of dance (modern, Ailey) and smaller ballet companies (Joffrey) have found their home at City Center (as well as at the Joyce, Dance Theater Workshop, Danspace Project, etc). Read more…

CopyEdits

Oh how I love a good copy-editor. After years and years of working on a book, someone else goes through the text, word-by-word, comma-by-comma, with an attention to detail that surpasses my own. As a former word-processor, I catch a lot of unforced errors and know that consistency is the primary rule. What I love about the copy-editors is that they find errors that I have long ago stopped seeing. And they ask good questions that clarify meaning and word-choice. All this to say: A Place for Us is in production! (Available in September.)

New York Arts Center: 1953

Mecca Temple, 135 55th St., 1929 (later City Center). New York Historical Society.

The Rockefeller brothers, long committed to philanthropy, began batting around ideas for a cultural center in New York in 1953. The grandiosity of the idea may have been possible only in the minds of people like the Rockefellers, or Robert Moses. When they joined forces, it was inevitable. Read more…

Human Relations

I have long wanted to know more about an oddly named enterprise at the New School called the Human Relations Center. I had a hunch that it was key to the longer story about women at The New School. Some time in the archives confirms that, yep, it is. Read more…

Brokers

In the most recent Writing History seminar, Nathan Connolly discussed how to narrate large social structures and processes through the tales of individual people. (His much-honored book, A World More Concrete, takes up this question by looking at real estate in Jim Crow Miami.) This is an enduring question for historians, particularly those trained in the politics and ideologies emerging from social history, history from the “bottom up,” the past of plumbers not presidents. How do we make structural forces, such as capitalism and racism, dynamic narratives? How do we engage readers with stories of these forces in lives instead of relying on concepts to do the action? Read more…

Aaron Shkuda and I co-edited a special section in the Journal of Urban History on arts and urbanization in postwar U.S. cities. Articles by Joanna Dee Das, Susannah Engstrom, Matt Reynolds, Jeffrey Trask, Aaron, and me. (Introduction by me as well.) It’s available here!

Painter History

Nell Painter, “Locke Harvard with Gradient 72,” Art History Volume XXVII, Ancestral Arts (2013)

Writing History: the seminar’s name describes its purpose. Luckily, it’s landed at the New School, so that it is easy for me to participate in a conversation that usually occurs only in my head. How can we be more creative in our writing about the past? How can thinking about being a writer make me a better historian? First up this semester: Nell Painter, historian and writer extraordinaire. Now she’s a visual artist. That is a trajectory I love, even if I cannot emulate. Read more…

Curating the Archives

The summer 2014 exhibition is now online! The virtual version includes reflections about the unusual demands of the exhibition from the curators, exhibition designer, and university archivist. Here is my conversation with Wendy Scheir, Director of the New School Archives and Special Collections, about curating the archives. Read more…

Imagining NYC

In this book, Christoph Lindner traces the New York that appears in literature and the visual arts in the early 20th century. He divides the imaginations into two sections, one vertical (skyscrapers), one horizontal (sidewalks), and ties creative pictures to urban plans and forms. In this, he adds an attention to spatiality to that of visuality in modernism. The city is not only seen but walked. Read more…

The City Lost & Found

This exhibit on “Capturing New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, from 1960-80,” is on view at the Princeton Art Museum until early June. The curators have assembled an impressive array of photographs, artworks, film, and historical artifacts to reveal how images became an indelible part of urban life during this period. Read more…

Studying NYC

My research, teaching, and daily life are in and about New York City. The city is a laboratory, as is often said in many a grant application — or proposal for a New School. And yet it can be difficult to figure out how to study it when you are in the swirl of the petri dish. My research assistant, Katerina Vaseva, suggested that I pool together resources for students and others interested in understanding this maze: check out the new page here. Suggestions for additions welcome!

The Carceral City

I walked through Crown Heights a few days ago and came across this odd mobile police unit. Students in my class knew exactly what it was: a M.U.S.T. – a mobile utility surveillance tower. It can be moved to a “place of interest,” a platform elevated from the base, flood lighting, infrared cameras – all monitored by one officer in the lifted hub, the driver’s seat of the van, or, I believe, remotely. If chaos ensues below, that person can call in extra troops with the push of a button from the encased hub, without having to exit to the street. The 21st century version of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, on a city corner near you. Read more…

中国!

Translation: to China! I have been selected for a one-week residency at Renmin University in Beijing sponsored by the Organization of American Historians. In June, I will give seminars on U.S. cultural history to faculty and graduate students there. Possible topics: the turn to visuality; the role of cities, urbanization, and institutions; transnational circulation; gender, race, and performance. There’s no doubt, however, that I will learn more from them.

Writing and Walking

This last week has been a rare moment of focus and solitude, huddled in a Writers Colony in the Ozarks of Northwest Arkansas. It has reminded me of Kimerer LaMothe’s admonition: writing (really, thinking) requires moving. That wars with the other truism: writing requires putting your butt in a chair, routinely. There is no muse like persistence.

I believe in both. But sharing the dance background that I do with Kimerer, I think moving more often gets forgotten. Read more…

The Art of Structure

John McPhee has been writing about writing in The New Yorker in the past few years and one notable essay was about the centrality of structure to non-fiction writing. Sarah Koenig, the writer and producer behind the podcast hit Serial, says that the appeal of the series rests on knowing how to structure a story. And Frederick Wiseman counseled those of us at a recent seminar about his work to look closely at the structure in his films as a clue to how he made decisions to use which image or footage where.

What’s so magical about structure?
Read more…

Center for Ballet and the Arts

The Center for Ballet and the Arts (CBA) at NYU had an auspicious debut in September. There were the necessary calls to high ideas, grand plans, and donors to thank. But the center of the evening was a ballet class, taught by Mark Morris, with dancers from his company and American Ballet Theatre. What an odd – and exhilarating – experience. Read more…

Dancing in the Streets: The Arts in Postwar U.S. Cities

This collection of essays on the arts in postwar U.S. cities offers a historical perspective on the contemporary embrace of the arts as a tool for urban place-making, neighborhood revitalization, economic boosting, and market branding. Urban historians can add a longer perspective to this trend to explain not only the roots of its current popularity but also more detailed measures of the arts’ impact. These essays look at arts institutions, artists as residents, and artworks themselves from the 1950s-70s to uncover the entangled intersection of arts and urbanization – before the arts became a touted salvation for stagnant economies and run-down neighborhoods. (Introduction [pdf])

Journal of Urban History, November 2015, edited with Aaron Shkuda. Photo: circa 1950s, The Vintage Project

Where Urbanization and the Arts Meet

The rise of Lincoln Center and the transformation of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) reveal how tied stages are to streets. These articles examine how events inside these grand performing arts institutions — their performances, audiences, programming — related to the changing demographics and neighborhoods of New York; how ideas about urbanism and actions on city streets become transfigured in the arts; and how cosmopolitanism became inscribed in city life by these institutions. (Streets and Stages: Urban Renewal and the Arts After World War II [pdf]; The Other West Side Story [pdf]).

Photo: BAM, 1978 (NYPL)

The Arts in Place

Specialists of specific genres of art dominate scholarship on the arts — art historians examine visual art; musicologists analyze music – while social historians most often have investigated popular culture, the artistic realm of a broader populace. This volume brings together social history and the arts to offer methodological insights, particularly on visual and spatial aspects of the past. (“The Arts in Place: An Introduction” [pdf])

Photo by Susanne Faulkner Stevens: Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival, August 1975 (Lincoln Center Archives)