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Clark Center for the Performing Arts - More Resources

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Clark Center for the Performing Arts

by Takiyah Nur Amin

The Clark Center for the Performing Arts was established in 1959, inspired by modern dance luminary Alvin Ailey along with celebrated dancers and educators including Thelma Hill and Jimmy Truitte. Housed within New York City’s Westside YWCA, the performance space and dance studio served as a home and creative hub for dance artists across genres and supported emerging dance companies through its New Choreographers program. Committed to accessibility, the Clark Center was a predominantly Black, multi-racial, multi-ethnic arts community that trained dancers, nurtured dance-makers and fostered the growing concert dance scene of the early 1960s, continuing for some 30 years before closing its doors in 1989 due to increased financial strain. Initially a multidisciplinary arts center that showcased theater and opera as well, the Clark Center was devoted primarily to dance education and promotion by 1970, with the YWCA providing space as well as administrative salaries for the Center’s efforts. As an incubator for creative practice, the Clark Center helped launch the careers of many prominent choreographers and companies active in the latter portion of the 20th century, including Meredith Monk, Kei Takei, Dianne McIntyre, Bill T. Jones, Urban Bush Women, and Ballet Hispanico. About the value of the Clark Center, University of Colorado-Boulder Professor Emerita Toby Hankins wrote, “It was a gathering place—an energetic and vibrant community—where aspiring young dancers had the opportunity to meet and work with a range of professional teachers and artists, and then to see those same artists performing in the major dance venues of New York City. What could be more inspiring?”1

Founding, Development and Philosophy        

Shortly after the Alvin Ailey Dance Company’s (now Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre) first performance at the 92nd Street Y, Ailey went on to help direct the Clark Center for the Performing Arts, in collaboration with dance teacher Thelma Hill. His vision for and commitment to the Clark Center included advocating for it to host a series of performances and workshops, aimed specifically at the professional development of new choreographers.  Former Clark Center dancer/administrator Spider Kedelsky remembered, “Best of all, was the congenial atmosphere created by a group of African American pioneers of dance who taught or rehearsed at the center.”2 Directed by Edele Holtz from 1960-1963, the Clark Center supported and sustained the work of many emerging dancers and choreographers, several of whom were Black; notably, Alvin Ailey’s masterwork, Revelations was developed while the company was in residence at the Clark Center.

Faculty, Companies, and Initiatives

The Clark Center for the Performing Arts boasted an impressive roster of dance teachers throughout its three decades of operations, including modern dancers James Truitte and Anna Sokolow and vernacular/jazz dancers Pepsi Bethel and Fred Benjamin. Unique class offerings in Hindu dance (Nala Najan), American Mime (Tom Shields, Juki Arkin and Rene Houtrides) and Dramatic Dance (Eleo Pomare) were also offered, in addition to Ballet, Horton, Dunham Technique and various approaches to dances of the African Diaspora. Most classes were taught with live musical accompaniment. 

Established in 1962, the New Choreographers Concerts at the Clark Center provided a stepping-stone for emerging dance-makers to share their creative work. The first roster of choreographers in this series included modern dancers Kazuko Hirabayashi and Elizabeth Keen and improvisational artist Margaret Beals. A 1966 Faculty Dance Concert boasted the work of Pepsi Bethel, modern dancer Eve Gentry, choreographer Charles Moore, the work of Marvin Gordon of Ballet Concepts, African dancer Alfred Ladzepo and a group of students, showcased under the direction and guidance of Alvin Ailey, James Truitte, and Thelma Hill as the Clark Center Repertory Dance Company. The Clark Center New Choreographers Selection Committee was composed of respected dance artists across genres, including Miguel Godreau, Talley Beatty, Ella Thompson Moore, Marilyn Bord, Mary Hinkson, Louis Johnson and other members of the Center’s teaching faculty. Between 1960 and 1971, some 20 companies were presented through the support of the New Choreographers Concerts including the Donald McKayle Company, Rod Rodgers and Company, and Dance Theatre of Harlem. Some of the artists showcased through the New Choreographers Concerts were later produced through the Center’s Dance Horizons Program.

Through the Dance Horizons program, a diverse range of companies and choreographers were able to perform and share their work. Participants in the Dance Horizons initiative were able to benefit from financial and support services to produce their work in addition to the use of the Center’s performance venue to showcase their choreography. Companies presented through Dance Horizons included Charles Moore’s Dances and Drums of Africa and Urban Bush Women. In addition to the Dance Horizons program, the Center’s Concerts for Kids Series was developed to introduce young audience members to the diverse world of dance and performance.

Louise Roberts and the Closing of the Clark Center

In 1970, Louise Roberts, former producer for the Donald McKayle Dance Company and administrator at June Taylor’s professional dance school became the director of the Clark Center. Of Louise’s stewardship of the Center, Shelley Frankel writes:

When Louise took over as director of the Clark Center it became home to so many dancers and choreographers and provided a place where people could take class at affordable prices.  It was her policy that dance should be available to whoever wanted to study. To that end, Louise chose to exist on Social Security and returned her salary back to Clark Center in order to keep the class rates down.”3

Under Roberts’s leadership, the New Choreographers Concerts continued to flourish, showcasing the work of George Faison, Michael Peters, Otis A. Salid, [Carol] Kariamu Welsh, Doug Varone, Faye Snow, Marla Bingham and many others. It was also at this time that Roberts provided space at Clark Center for Playwrights Horizons, a theater company that produced some 70 plays between 1972 to 1974, under the direction of Robert Moss. 

In 1974, the Clark Center for the Performing Arts’ dance school was relocated to temporary quarters at 939 8th Avenue and established as its own not-for-profit corporation, separate from the YWCA. That year, the YWCA building, in which Clark Center had been housed, was sold. The Clark Center officially re-opened on November 24th of that year at its new location and continued its operations. After the move, the Center began to host its Dance Festival at the Mall on the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center Campus on 42nd Street and did so from 1975 to 1978. The Dance Festival at the Mall showcased the choreographic work of then-emerging choreographers, including modern dancers Bill T. Jones, Cathryn Williams, Senta Driver, and Susan Dibble, among others. In 1978, the Festival commemorated the Center’s 20th anniversary and included 10 programs over a 5-week period, dedicated to the loving memory of Thelma Hill (1924-1977). After the 1978 season, plans were made to create a more permanent dance theater to host Clark Center productions, as the CUNY Mall was no longer available for use as a performance space.

After a range of fundraising efforts, the plan to relocate the Clark Center had officially stalled by the end of 1985. By August of 1986, Clark Center Director Louise Roberts had officially resigned her post and was recognized and celebrated for her work during the Center’s summer dance festival that year, showcased at the Douglas Fairbanks Theater. While the Clark Center continued to operate in a limited way from 1985 to 1989 under the leadership of Jerry Cole, efforts to maintain the Center eventually yielded to financial pressures and the Center ceased operations in 1989.    

Referred to by Ailey as the “ritual home” for dancers and choreographers working in the early 1960s onward, the Clark Center for the Performing Arts played a pivotal role in nurturing scores of dancers and choreographers during its years of operation. As dancer, choreographer and former faculty member Carmen De Lavallade once noted about the Center, “that place saved our lives…the majority of us would have had no place to go.”4


 

NOTES: The author wishes to thank Jill Williams of the Clark Center Legacy Project for her contribution to this essay.

1. Hankin,  Toby. “Memories of Jimmy Truitte.” Memories of the Clark Center. www.clarkcenternyc.org. 2013. Web. 11 November 2015.

2. Kedelsky, Spider. “Brooklyn Wasn’t Enough But Clark Center Was.” Memories of the Clark Center. www.clarkcenternyc.org. 2013. Web. 11 November 2015.

3. Frankel, Shelley. “Louise and Me.” www.clarkcenternyc.org. n.d. Web. 11 November 2015

4. “Benefit at New Home of the Clark Center.” The New York Times 25 March 1985. Web. 11 November 2015.


Takiyah Nur Amin, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Dance Studies and Affiliate Faculty in the Department of Africana Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte where she teaches courses in dance history and theory in the liberal studies curriculumDepartment of Dance and College of Art and Architecture Honors Program. Her research and teaching interests include Black performance and aesthetics, 20th century American concert dance and pedagogical issues in dance studies. 

 

Selected Resoures for Further Research

Books & Articles

Dunning, Jennifer. “Louise Roberts, 85, Director of Modern Dance Center, Dies.”  New York Times, 27 January 1997

http://www.nytimes.com/1997/01/27/arts/louise-roberts-85-director-of-modern-dance-center-dies.html

Swan, Derry. “Thelma Hill: Biographical Essay.”

http://www.thirteen.org/freetodance/biographies/hill.html

“The Clark Center for the Performing Arts Remembered in a CUNY Celebration.” Interview with Tina Croll and Jill Williams. September 22, 2015.

http://www.dance-enthusiast.com/features/view/clark-horses-postcard

Archives

Clark Center Records, 1960-1995

Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

http://archives.nypl.org/dan/19827

Online Resources

Clark Center NYC Website

www.clarkcenternyc.org

Moving Image

Thelma, Kathy & Louise

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gqF0hepvNDY 

Remembering Clark Center Slide Show

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AIeLM3wkwG8