Volume 75, Number 50 | May 3 - 9 2006

Notebook

Finding a new perspective at Westbeth kids’ dance

By Michele Herman

Some of my far West Village neighbors and I came through a rough time last fall. It had to do with the fight to save the old brick Superior Ink building on West and Bethune Sts. When that failed, we endured the doomed and discordant effort to limit the impact of its high-rise glass replacement and, when that failed, the equally messy effort to spread the pain equitably. For months, whenever I approached the end of Bethune St. to mail a letter or vote or take the puppy for a romp, I’d feel the knot tightening in my stomach.

Then one day by chance my son came home and announced the perfect antidote to my anger and disappointment and rising cynicism: his fifth-grade class at P.S. 3 would be performing a dance at the Merce Cunningham studio, which, as I knew all too well from the fall’s struggles, happens to be Westbeth’s 11th-floor tenant.

The morning of the performance was cold and clear with a big wind slapping off the Hudson. My in-laws, newly moved to the city, were with us, taking advantage of this local-grandparent perk. I’ve been to many dance performances at P.S. 3 over the years, and they’re always a wonder of invention and unexpected grace. It was also my first appointment in a long while that didn’t require me to prepare a speech or carry a set of overblown architectural plans. I couldn’t wait.

If you’ve never been, I highly recommend a visit to the ballroomlike Cunningham studio. Though most of the building’s interiors were gutted when the Westbeth artists’ housing complex was created out of the old Bell Labs, up on the top floors the original Bell grandeur is still in evidence. The 12th floor, once Bell’s executive offices, has mahogany paneling and marble fireplaces. The 11th-floor studio is where the first private screening of the talkie “The Jazz Singer” took place; Westbeth’s managing agent tells me the remains of the projection room are still there behind the reception area. But what you feel when you walk in is that you’ve wandered into an aerie for dancers, nothing but floor and space and sunshine pouring in every which way.

While the kids were getting ready, my husband and I looked out the big windows: on one side our mighty Hudson and on the other our rapidly changing Village. Landscapes always look alien and distorted from above, but I was struck as I always am by the scale of the 19th-century city, when buildings topped out at six stories much the way humans tend to top out at 6 feet. I was struck too by the poignancy of the humble brick buildings constructed from ruddy riverbank earth and still going strong a century or more later. I remembered a trip we took upriver not long ago to visit the Dia Beacon galleries. What impressed me as much as the art was the exposed bricks, which looked exactly like the bricks in my apartment on 12th St.: the same soft, luminous orange that always calls to my mind a shade of lipstick my mother used to wear in the summer to set off her tan. Amid the orange was the same occasional well-toasted brick, the same sandy mortar, same paving style of five rows of runners alternating with one row of headers, endearing in its slight irregularity.

And why shouldn’t the brick look the same? It no doubt comes from the same earth. I gazed out the window at the sad, superannuated Superior Ink building and its massive smokestacks. It will soon give way to a nearly 20-story high-rise that will block sunlight for me and for many of my neighbors. The high-rise will also sever a series of small connections to the city’s past, when Manhattan functioned as more than a luxury housing development. The Superior building was originally a Nabisco factory, just like the Dia Beacon building. In fact, as I learned later, it happens that Nabisco made crackers on Bethune St. and cracker boxes in Beacon.

Jennie the P.S. 3 movement teacher made a little speech and the kids came out, wearing black T-shirts with bold white geometric patterns they had designed themselves. Their piece was called “Dance by Chance,” and it was very Merce. Back at school in their weekly movement class the kids had spun wheels and thrown darts to determine their moves. They worked in small groups to perfect each bit of choreography, and then they put them all together into an impressively long and cohesive whole to the beat of African music.

My son has this proud upright way of holding his body that’s clearly not genetic. His role involved a lot of running across the stage with an old friend of his who, I’m told, is the best runner in the class. What I didn’t know is that this boy is also a born leaper, flying halfway across the floor before making a landing. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. For a while I switched my focus to my son’s best friend, another sandy-haired boy who’s an honorary member of our family. And then a lovely graceful girl I first knew as a frightened kindergartner needing comfort in the noisy lunchroom.

Finally, I watched the kids plagued with inner demons more demanding than those of the rest of us, the ones for whom school must be a daily trial. They too soared. They knew their moves and their cues and never missed a beat.

It’s my last of nine years at P.S. 3, and it’s been a banner one for arts education. The school hosted an ambitious daylong environmental-arts exhibit, and a documentary about the school’s music program just had its debut at the Tribeca Film Festival.

That morning on the top of Westbeth may have been the first time in months I exhaled fully. How good it was to remember that there’s more to life in Greenwich Village than tilting against monied interests in the windowless hearing room of the Board of Standards and Appeals.

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