92NY Celebrates 150 Years With Spectacular Performances and a New Exhibition

“Dance history was made here, and dance history continues to be made here,” proclaimed Board Chair Jody Gottfried Arnhold.

Two dancers, a man and a woman, perform floor work on a darkened stage
The Limón Dance Company members perform José Limón’s ‘There Is a Time.’ Photo by RICHARD TERMINE/92NY

Earlier this week, 92NY (formally the 92nd Street Y, New York) celebrated its 150th year with a lively evening honoring the center’s deep ties to American modern dance. “Dance history was made here, and dance history continues to be made here,” proclaimed Jody Gottfried Arnhold, Chair of 92NY’s Board of Directors, standing before the crowd in the Weill Art Gallery. Then she raised her glass high and said, “This is a birthday party!”

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There were cheers and clinks and sips. There were delicious hor d’oeuvres. There was a passionate speech by CEO Seth Pinsky and congratulatory words from Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine with Council Members Julie Menin, Keith Powers and Rita Joseph. And despite the harsh realities of the outside world, on that night and in that building, there was palpable joy.

92NY was founded in 1874 to serve the Jewish community but has since grown into one of the city’s most important and inclusive cultural institutions. The Dance Center opened in 1934, and The School of Dance in 1935, and it quickly made a name for itself by being one of the only places to allow everyone—regardless of racial, ethnic, religious or cultural background—access to dance spaces, classes, lectures and performances. It became a refuge for women, immigrants, BIPOC and Jewish dance artists. Martha Graham taught and created here. Alvin Ailey premiered here. Countless others made history here too: Merce Cunningham, Jose Limón, Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, Janet Collins, Doris Humphrey…the list—starlit, luminous—goes on.

‘Dance to Belong: A History of Dance at 92NY’

The evening began with a viewing of 92NY’s new exhibition, ”Dance to Belong: A History of Dance at 92NY”—a dance history lover’s paradise that will also appeal to anyone interested in the larger impact of the arts. Exceptionally co-curated by Jessica Friedman and Ninotchka Bennahum with Jeanne Haffner of Thinc Design, it includes photographs, performance programs, artwork, digital media and rare film footage.

The imagery is plentiful and thoughtfully arranged. Some personal favorites include a picture of a Y.W.H.A. dance class in 1915 (The clothes! The shoes!), stunning portraits of Carmen De Lavallade and La Argentinita, a dreamy shot of Maria Tallchief and Francisco Moncion and images of some of the lesser-known greats mid-movement: Donald McKayle, Gus Solomons, Si-lan Chen and Louis Johnson.

An installation shot of a photographic exhibition focused on dance
An installation view of ‘Dance to Belong: A History of Dance at 92NY.’ Photograph © 2024 Richard Termine, courtesy 92Y

And to see the original program for Edna Guy and Allison Burroughs’ legendary 1937 Negro Dance Evening! To see the original announcement for dance critic John Martin’s 1935 Free Symposium on The Modern Dance, which launched American Modern Dance into the world as a distinct art form!

But perhaps most wonderful element of the exhibition is the rare film footage. Screens line the walls and hover, curving, at the center of the room. Short films loop on their separate screens, creating conversations across the space. You can watch excerpts from Pearl Primus’ Spirituals (1950), Jose Limón’s Sonata for Two Cellos (1961), Martha Graham’s “Prelude to Action” and “Steps in the Street” from Chronicle (1936), among many other masterworks. At one point, I watched Eve Gentry’s Tenant of the Street (1938) and David Dorfman’s “From Ashes They Rise” from Indecent (2015) at the same time. Where else could I do that? I could have spent hours in that room.

Dancing the 92nd Street Y: A 150th Anniversary Performance

From there, the party moved to the Kaufmann Concert Hall for an extraordinary one-night-only performance, also exceptionally curated, that included historic works by 92NY-connected modern dance pioneers Jose Limón, Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey paired with new works by contemporary choreographers Omar Román De Jesús, Jamar Roberts and Hope Boykin.

Dancers performing on a pink lit stage
Hope Boykin’s ‘Manifesting Legacy.’ Photograph © 2024 Richard Termine, courtesy 92Y

The classic works—Limón’s There is a Time (1956), Graham’s Suite from Appalachian Spring (1944) and a collection of excerpts from Ailey’s Blues Suite (1958), The Lark Ascending (1972), and Streams (1970)—were lovely, and what a thrill to see them on the very stage where they were once performed! But what I really want to share more about is the new stuff.

Omar Román De Jesús’ duet Like Those Playground Kids at Midnight blew me out of the water. De Jesús, a Queer Puertorriqueño choreographer and director of NYC-based dance company Boca Tuya, recently burst onto the contemporary dance scene. He danced with Balleteatro Nacional de Puerto Rico from 2006-2011 before attending the Ailey School and then touring with American modern and contemporary companies like Ballet Hispanico and Parsons Dance. Among a barrage of recent accolades are a 2023 Dance Magazine – Harkness Promise Award, a 2022 Princess Grace Award in Choreography and a 2022 NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellowship in Choreography.

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His style, particularly in Like Those Playground Kids at Midnight, is slithery and acrobatic. Cat-like. The chemistry between De Jesús and fellow dancer Ian Spring was electric, and the innovative partnering was playful and tender and rubbed up perfectly against Jesse Sheinin’s eerie musical score. The closing image—one man swinging the other in mid-air—brought to mind a figure skating death spiral, then a roundabout at a playground and then deep fear, and finally, the dizziness of young love. When this piece is performed again, I will be there.

A dancer kicks while two other dancers crouch on a stage with a backdrop that looks like a setting sun
Ailey ll performing ‘Blues Suite.’ Photograph © 2024 Richard Termine, courtesy 92Y

Jamar Roberts’ We the People was a fascinating follow-up to Graham’s Appalachian Spring. In her introduction to the two pieces, Martha Graham Dance Company Artistic Director Janet Eilber called them “Americana then and now,” which makes sense. Roberts, Resident Choreographer of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater from 2017-2022 and former Ailey dancer, is known for his fast and fluid choreography, and this piece is no exception. The Company premiered it a month ago, and it seems the dancers are still catching up to its speed. But it’s poignant and fun, and Rhiannon Giddens’ bluegrass score is a pleasure. I look forward to seeing it again in April as part of the Company’s New York City Center season when it has more fully made its way into the dancers’ bodies.

Closing out the program was the world premiere of Hope Boykin’s Manifesting Legacy, commissioned specifically for the event. Boykin danced with Complexions, Philadanco and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and you can see those influences in her work: the sleekness, the precision, the beauty. But there is something else here, too, which is unique to Boykin herself. A sort of glitching-fembot coolness. The dancers became after-hour jazz queens under her touch. What a joy—for them and for us. I can’t wait to see what she makes next.

I love historic dance repertory and always will, but if De Jesús, Roberts and Boykin represent the future of American contemporary dance, we’ve got a lot to look forward to.

Dance to Belong: A History of Dance at 92NY” is on view through October 31 in the Milton J. Weill Art Gallery. 

92NY Celebrates 150 Years With Spectacular Performances and a New Exhibition