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More Than A Century of Dance at A More Than 225 Year Old Church

Photo of the sanctuary at St. Marks on the Bowery show the hardwood floors and open space for movement.
St. Mark’s in the Bowery’s Sanctionary.

On April 25, 1795 the cornerstone was laid for St. Marks Church-in-the-Bowery — a historic cornerstone itself of our neighborhoods. What no one knew then was that the building would be a center for the dance community for one hundred years and counting. The history of dance and performance at St. Mark’s is rich and deep, and continues to engage New York City in unique and significant ways. 

In 1922, Rev. William Guthrie (rector from 1911-1937) created the St. Mark’s Arts Committee, with members including Kahlil Gibran, Vachel Lindsay, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Despite resistance from the broader church community, Rev. Guthrie cemented a place for dance in this historic place of worship. Rev. Guthrie is quoted as saying “the dance is the most inevitable form of expression; it is the human body speaking…an intelligent religion will idealize it.” This committement to dance was recipricated by the dance artists Rev. Guthrie supported.

A February 26,1933 article in the New York Times with the headline “St. Mark’s Holds Benefit” shared details about Ruth St. Denis’ performance of “exotic religious dances called ‘the Madonna,’ ‘Raha’ and ‘the White Jade’…” with Rev. Guthrie reading St Denis’ poems between theses pieces. This performance was a fundraiser to cover costs for “regular Sunday morning services in the church during the remainder of the season.” The article gives brief insight into the nature of the symbiotic relationship between dance artists and St. Mark’s. It shines light on a relationship that is not just a charitable contribution to dance artists from a place of worship. Instead, it demonstrates a symbiotic relationship where the church and the dance artists contribute to the betterment of one another.

These are the roots of a beautiful and bountiful relationship that has bloomed here over the last century, and one that is significant to many in the dance field in New York City. It began by the reverend inviting dance artists like Martha Graham and Ruth St. Denis to dance in the sanctuary of the church. Through the church’s history, dance has been a consideration in the church’s growth and even in the built space. The current sanctuary has no pews and a hardwood floor that invites dance artists to create and perform in the space. 

The history of dance at St. Mark’s led to a watershed agreement at the founding of Danspace Project in 1974. Since 1974, St. Mark’s has provided the organization a home, helping it to launch a number of dance artists’ careers and birth a number of dance initiatives that impact both the dance community and the Lower Manhattan community at large. Just one impressive statistic is that the project’s Commissioning Initiative has commissioned over 570 new works since its inception in 1994. Space for the creation and performance of dance is at a premium for all dance makers. It is typical for dance artists to have to hunt, barter, and pay high prices for rehearsal and performance space. They see dance spaces come and go with the whims of the real estate industry and/or philanthropic interest. 

Having a home for dance in the East Village for one hundred years has meant a great deal to artists throughout New York City. This sort of consistency leads to a rich history of the creation of dance in the not only in our neighborhoods but far beyond.

Some of this history was documented and shared through Danspace’s 2018 Platform: Dancing Platform Praying Grounds: Blackness, Churches, and Downtown Dance, curated by Reggie Wilson. Reggie Wilson’s platform delved into the history of dance at St. Mark’s while placing this historic site into a broader context by exploring the relationship between places of worship and dance. The platform led to the publishing of the catalague: Dancing Platform Praying Grounds; Blackness, Churches, and Downtown Dance

Diaspora is not this little thing—speaking historically, choreographically, politically.

I wanted to place my own Diasporas alongside those of the Danspace Project.”

-Reggie Wilson

Cover of Danspace's Platform 2018 Catalogue
Cover of Danspace’s Platform 2018 Catalogue

Now available as a free pdf, the publication is a lasting reflection of the platform curated by Reggie Wilson, which ran from February 28-March 24, 2018 and included a rich array of dance performance, walking tours, and historical discovery. 

The platform culminated with an original work by Reggie Wilson which was specifically commissioned for Dance Platform 2018 to premiere at St. Mark’s-in-the-Bowery Church. An excerot of Reggie Wilson’s …they stood shaking while others began to shout can be seen below, filmed at St. Mark’s Church as a part of Danspace Project’s 12th platform.

Artists having an opportunity to participate in intiatives like Dancing Platform Praying Grounds: Blackness, Churches, and Downtown Dance spurs further creativity and performance. Just one example is Jonathan González’ work ZERO.

Zero | Jonathan Gonzalez | April 2018 from Intrinsic Grey Productions on Vimeo.

The work is described as follows:

“Jonathan González fabulates upon the grounds of Danspace Project’s location, St. Marks Church in-the-Bowery, and expands upon two years of research on grief and the choreographer’s participation in Dancing Platform Praying Grounds: Blackness, Churches, and Downtown Dance (Danspace Project Platform 2018).

Structurally informed by the four cardinal directions and seasons, four performers, Rena Anakwe, Chazz Bruce, Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste, and González-continue in the legacy of vandalisms of the Church as a cast of thieves taken by the architecture and its shadows: the rumored slave gallery balconies and its cemetery grounds.”

Quote and video from Intrinsic Grey Productions Vimeo

The divedends for dance artists and dance enthusiasts alike do not end with Jonathan González’ work. Reggie Wilson’s commission “they stood shaking while others began to shout” inspired the “development of ideas percolating for the full-length evening work POWER which [premiered] in summer 2019 at Jacob’s Pillow Doris Duke Theatre” and was also performed at BAM. In this way, one can see the larger affect of the space that St. Mark’s provides to Danspace Project. The work created through Danspace Project at St. Mark’s echos beyond the East Village to the broader world of dance.

As the Village Preservation staff prepared for our first in-person program in 2022, we were excited to see the set up for Danspace Project’s 2022 Gala outside our offices in the rectory of St. Mark’s church.

Danspace Gala Advertisement for April 5 2022
Announcement for Danspace 2022 Gala

Danspace Project continues to honor “rebel angels” in dance. It provides space for dance artists to thrive and opportunities for the community to interact with dance in an unlikely place, over a hundred years after those first efforts by Rev. Guthrie. The cornerstone laid in 1795 has created space for dance to thrive alongside civil rights movements, anti-war protests, and intersectional fights for justice. Commemorating and celebrating this history is vital to the continued success of dance in New York City as well as the preservation of historic sites like St. Mark’s in the Bowery Church.

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