SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — This pleasant, relaxed Upstate town has long been known for its mineral baths and horse racing. But since the Saratoga Performing Arts Center opened here 20 years ago, it has become an important venue for dance.
The Arts Center was inaugurated as the summer home of New York City Ballet, which has spent three weeks here every July since 1966. A short walk away from the 5,000-seat semi-enclosed theater where the ballet performs, the 500-seat Little Theater is making its own claim on the dance world's attention, playing host this summer to the companies of Twyla Tharp, Laura Dean and Alwin Nikolais, along with Hubbard Street Dance Company.
All this dance activity, and the support it has received from both patrons and audience members, helps explain why Saratoga is the home of the new National Museum of Dance, currently in the midst of its opening ("preview") season in the newly restored Washington Bathhouse, a Saratoga Spa State Park landmark built in 1924.
Situated on the same grounds as the Arts Center, the museum, which opened July 8, was the brainchild of several officers and board members of the older institution.
Although its Dance Hall of Fame will be inaugurated next year, the museum is already a bustling enterprise. Three exhibitions have been attracting close to 200 visitors a day. The response to the new venture caught its administrators unaware; the gift shop sold out in two days and they had to make frantic phone calls to replenish its stock.
Early in 1984, Lewis Swyer, the Arts Center's board chairman (now also chairman of the museum); Herbert Chesbrough, its president, and board member Marylou Whitney formulated their plan for a museum devoted to American dance. Chesbrough described it as "a natural complement to the development of a major dance festival for Saratoga Springs." Their proposal was accepted by the state in August, 1984; the arrangement called for the museum to pay rent of $1 a year for 20 years.
"The plan was in keeping with the cultural aesthetic of the park," notes Alison Moore, the museum's director since January. "The building was in terrible condition--the roof leaked, there was water everywhere. It was appalling. So the plan for the museum was very mutually beneficial."
Three phases of renovation were planned. The first, at a cost of $750,000, was completed in time for the July opening.
Two 5,000-square-foot exhibition galleries, spacious and functional, and the elegant, airy entryway and foyer, were created in the formerly dilapidated space.
In one gallery, devoted to modern dance, are two separate but complementary exhibits. "Made in America: Modern Dance Then and Now," an impressive collection of large photographs documenting the development of modern dance from 1890 to the present, originated at the American Dance Festival in 1984 and has also been seen at the Library and Museum of Performing Arts in New York City.
"Tracking, Tracing, Marking, Pacing" consists of work on paper (drawing, notations and diagrams) by a wide range of experimental choreographers and performing artists, including Dana Reitz, Lucinda Childs and Robert Longo. Many of the drawings are accompanied by photographs documenting the performances represented in the works on paper.
The ballet gallery features the only one of the three exhibits that originated at the museum. "Dressing the Ballet" is a straightforward presentation of costumes culled from the repertories of several major ballet companies. Erte's costumes for Jerome Robbins' "In G Major" are on display, as are a number of Karinska classics, such as costumes for Balanchine's "Jewels" and "Liebeslieder Walzer."
One can examine the lavish intricacy of the Fairy Godmother's costume from American Ballet Theatre's recent "Cinderella," as well as costumes on loan from the Joffrey Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Dance Theater of Harlem and others.
But all this is only a beginning, Moore promises. She looks forward to more thoroughly researched and documented exhibits; this year's short start-up period precluded doing anything complex. She also feels strongly about the museum's educational program, which began with a series of museum-sponsored master classes taught by the choreographers appearing at the Arts Center.
The second phase of renovation, which Moore would like to see completed by next year, but for which fund raising has only recently gotten under way, calls for a resource center, including dance literature, films and videotapes and study areas, along with a 100-seat theater for screening.
Farther down the line, three dance studios are to be built on the land behind the existing building, offering dance training and providing a base for the many summer dance programs that take place in Saratoga.