The CUNY Dance Initiative: A Step Toward Solving the Space Issue

An Interview with Alyssa Alpine, Director of the CUNY Dance Initiative


The CUNY Dance Initiative is an opportunity for New York City choreographers and dance companies to apply for residencies designed to take advantage of underutilized facilities in the City University of New York (CUNY) public university system – the largest urban university system in the US. The CUNY Dance Initiative integrates New York City’s dance community within the public university system by providing local artists with rehearsal and performance space on 13 CUNY campuses across the city’s five boroughs. In March 2019, the CUNY Dance Initiative celebrates five years as a groundbreaking model for support in the dance field with a 5th Year Fest at Baruch Performing Arts Center. Here, Alyssa Alpine, Director of the CUNY Dance Initiative, shares how the program works, what has come about as a result, how the 5th Year Fest can spread the word, and how the program might be a model for sustainable art-making beyond New York City.

KinesisProject at John Jay_by StephendelasHeras

Kinesis Project’s site-specific In Persistence of Memory on the rooftop of John Jay College

Photo by Stephen de las Heras


Can you tell me about the history of the CUNY Dance Initiative and how it came about?

The seeds for what would become the CUNY Dance Initiative (CDI) were sown by a 2010 report that was funded by the Mellon Foundation called We Make Do. It looked at the state of the dance field in New York City at the time and concluded that small dance companies were threatened by a lack of affordable rehearsal and performance space. In a footnote, it cited that the City University of New York (CUNY) campuses had studios and stages that were underutilized at certain times of the year and that perhaps could be an avenue for a dance company rehearsals and performances.

CDI is based at Queens College, one of the four-year colleges in the CUNY system. The gentlemen to whom I report and with whom I worked closely in launching CDI is Jeffrey Rosenstock. Jeff is currently Assistant Vice President for Governmental Relations & External Affairs at Queens College, but he was previously the executive director of Queens Theatre in the Park, a performing arts theater in Queens. He brought his performing arts nonprofit network with him to Queens College, and one of his friends and former colleagues, Kerry McCarthy at the New York Community Trust, said that they had organized an informal round table after the report to get dance artists onto CUNY campuses, and found that the directors of the CUNY performing arts spaces were already overburdened and short on budget.

When Jeff came to Queens College, he thought it was an interesting idea, so they tried again, and rounded up a couple of performing arts people at CUNY. With the help of the New York Community Trust, they launched an 18-month pilot program through four CUNY colleges, hosting nine residences. It was informal; there was not an open call for applications. They just worked with who was already working at the colleges. Everyone who participated said, “Wow, this is amazing,” so Queens College put in a formal application for funds from the New York Community Trust in 2013, and received a two-year grant, which became the founding money for the program. The Mertz Gilmore Foundation joined up in 2014. That was our running start, and we were suddenly tasked with announcing the program, implementing it, rounding up college partners, the whole shebang.

I had known Jeff for years and had worked in arts administration for 15 years. At the time, I was running studio and theater rentals for New York Live Arts. A friend of mine was working with Jeff and mentioned the project to me. Then my friend, who was going to run CDI, was suddenly asked to be Director of Cultural Affairs and Tourism for the Borough of Queens, so she asked if I would be interested. I was told it would be a small part-time job, and I was persuaded, but it rapidly turned out to be a much bigger project. When we did our initial call to the various performing arts centers within CUNY, we had phenomenal turnout. Our goal had been to get five to six colleges to sign up the first year, but we had 10 colleges supporting 19 residencies the first year. It rapidly exceeded expectations on all fronts.


Dusan Tynek Dance Theatre in Anna, which premiered at John Jay College in 2018

Photo by Ian Douglas

How is CDI structured?

There are 13 colleges participating now and, of those 13 colleges, nine are performing arts centers and four are dance programs. Each college is very different. It was a surprise for me how few had dance programs or classes. For example, John Jay College of Criminal Justice has an amazing theater that is well-maintained, but no dance program or classes on campus. So each college is its own situation in terms of how much performing arts they have on campus. How it works is each college has identified the spaces that are available and when. The most availability is during the winter and summer breaks, as well as the weekends. That availability is listed on the CDI website when people put their application together. The application I designed is meant to be filled out in an hour or two. I don’t want it to be an onerous submission process. We’ve figured out what information we need from the artists to make a good decision about whether they are likely to be a candidate or not. We do an open call for applicants each year that runs for about a month in the fall. I sift through the applications myself, and all the colleges review the applications that have applied to their campus. We get together and make a short list of artists we’re interested in, and often do site visits with artists to make sure it’s a good fit.

Residencies vary depending on availability of the space. Some residencies are a concentrated week or two, while others are spread out over a semester. Brooklyn College, for instance, has an amazing dance studio that is free on Fridays. The minimum hours per residency is 25 but it can go up to more than 100 hours. Stage time is usually more expensive, so especially for performing arts centers that have union stage crews, those residencies are usually shorter. Studio based residencies usually include more time. CDI’s average residency is 54 hours.

For applicants trying to decide where to apply, information is provided online, and I also do an in-person info session each year that I encourage applicants to attend. The main thing I try to convey to applicants is to not assume that every college has a dance program with 50 students who are dying to take a master class with you. CUNY students are often people who work another job, have families, and don’t have a lot of disposable time. The question is: How do we make a meaningful match between the college and the artist? It’s easiest with the dance programs because they adore having these professional artists come in and teach a master class.

As far as the distribution of residencies, there will always be more interest in Manhattan. Even though artists are more dispersed now and living in the boroughs, Manhattan’s midtown and downtown is a central convergence point. We’ve had to limit the number of colleges in Manhattan that artists can pick. We have four participating colleges in Manhattan, but artists can only pick two of them where they’d like to have a residency. But they can select as many colleges in the boroughs as they’d like. The stipend associated with the residency is a bit higher outside of Manhattan. It’s also dependent on how much they are teaching and performing, but we guarantee a baseline.

Khaled at Lehman

Khaled Barghouthi teaches a masterclass at Lehman College as part of his residency

Photo by Ian Douglas

Can you talk a bit about how artists have benefitted from CDI?

By the end of this current cycle in June 2019, we will have supported 130 residencies since CDI started in 2014. Out of these 130 residencies, 26 artists have been awarded two residencies. Sometimes these are at two different colleges, and sometimes it’s a second residency at one college. Some colleges have found it works well for both the artist and audiences to build a relationship by giving rehearsal time only in the first year, and then culminating the second residency with a performance. If an artist has a residency two years in a row, we ask they take a break before reapplying so as to make opportunities for other people.

The geographic limitation to New York City was a stipulation of our initial funding from the New York Community Trust; the choreographer or company applying must be based in one of the five boroughs. We’ve held steady on the number of applications each year, which shows me there’s an ongoing need for subsidized space. While there are definitely some artists who reapply, many are first time applicants. This tells me that the fact we’re constrained to New York City is not a bad thing.

As far as outreach, it’s been a very organic process. We’ve caught the attention of the spectrum of the dance community. Given that CUNY is a public university system, the colleges want to select an artist who is both talented and accomplished, but who also resonates with their student body. New York City is an extraordinarily diverse place, which lends itself to presenting a wide range of artists. Artists tend to let other artists in their circle know about CDI, which has helped us reach different sectors of the dance community.

Are there certain expectations of the artists in the residencies?

The expectations vary from site to site. We want the residency to work for both the artist and the college, and everyone has slightly different parameters. There are no rules about creating new work or performing. It’s meant to be an arts incubator; we’re providing space for creativity. Many artists do want to perform, so about half of the residencies culminate in a performance. As far as teaching, an artist doesn’t have to teach, though we’ve had some great examples of teaching a movement class or storytelling through movement/gesture at the colleges that don’t have a dance program. Those have been a real hit on both sides. We’ve also had a few instances where the artist teaches a class that is open to the community.

How competitive is CDI? Is it aimed for artists at a certain point in their careers?

It’s competitive, but less so than other residencies and grants. We tend to get about 180 proposals each year, and we award between 22 to 24 residencies, so there’s a decent shot. Applicants need to be at a certain level of professionalism, but there’s a variation; emerging choreographers apply alongside much more established companies. A lot of it comes down to scheduling flexibility. Bigger companies want to rehearse during the day, and most colleges can’t offer their spaces then because of academic use.

What is the infrastructure like on the backend to support all these residencies?

I’m based at Queens College, and Jeffrey Rosenstock, who I mentioned earlier, is the Assistant Vice President for Governmental Relations & External Affairs at Queens College. I work closely with Jeff and Julia del Palacio, who is the Director of Strategic Partnerships at Kupferberg Center for the Arts. It’s a very small staff – Jeff, Julia, myself and Jamie Benson (our social media manager) – though we hire out as needed. We get great support from CUNY headquarters, who built our website, for example, so we get in-kind support from the university system.

Copy of SLIDE CUNY Dance Initiative 1920X1080video

The 5th Year Fest is coming up March 20th to 23rd at the Baruch Performing Arts Center. How did you decide who to invite to perform?

It was hard! We’ve had so many artists come through CDI. To the best of our abilities, we try to keep tabs on what the artists who have come through CDI are up to, so I have a pretty good sense of who’s doing what. In some cases, it came down to scheduling and availability. My guiding framework was to pick a representation of the artists who have come through our doors. I wanted both stylistic and cultural diversity, as well as a range in terms of emerging versus established artists.

What do you hope will come about as a result of the 5th Year fest?

We’re definitely looking for more visibility. CDI is the only program of its size and type in the country. It’s something that CUNY should be proud of as a system. I’m hoping for increased awareness within the CUNY system, as well as for our 13 college partners which have been so dedicated and generous with their time and space. I would like them to get more support from their campuses as a result of the festival. We also want to make sure the dance community is aware of us and knows the extent of our activities. Finally, we’re looking for funding. I would love to be able to pay artists more than we can right now, and to support more than one master class per residency. We need to expand our supporter/stakeholder/funder base. The impact of CDI is great bang for your buck. The benefit and long-term potential is huge, so I hope the festival is a catalyst for more growth.

How have you seen CDI affect the New York City dance scene over the past five years?

I’m going to preface this by saying we’re not the only residency program in town, thankfully, because there’s a huge need for residencies. The gift of time, space and money is something so many artists benefit from. Sometimes it’s a question of where you catch an artist in their career. We had a choreographer named Jennifer Weber in our first year who was creating her Hip Hop Nutcracker. She had her residency at Hunter College, which has a huge studio. She wrote me later that if she’d had to rent small spaces for $10 an hour, it would have constrained her choreographic process. Working in a large space opened possibilities she wouldn’t have known. Now, her Hip Hop Nutcracker tours nationally and is an annual fixture. So sometimes it’s a happy coincidence that we happen to offer the space at a critical launching point in an artist’s career.

What can the CDI model teach us about sustainability solutions for dance?

You can always do a swap; an artist can always go to a university, use rehearsal space, and teach a masterclass. I’m sure it’s already being done in many places, and there are more opportunities for it. The fact that we provide money, access and space for choreographers is huge. It’s not just a swap. We’re trying to support the artist as much as possible within a broader framework for providing lasting solutions that make an impact on the performing arts ecosystem. More than anything, dance needs to expand its audience base. I look at CDI as a platform for doing that on a broader scale. How can we help dance have a presence at some of these performing arts centers where, without our support, artists wouldn’t be presented? How can we help the artists connect with new presenters and new audiences? And how can we help the presenters connect with existing dance audiences and build new audiences?

Dancers often hate Q&A sessions after shows, but audience talkbacks are important. I get such delight out of Q&As because the audiences are full of surprises and I enjoy hearing their responses. It’s important to find out what drew them to the work and what they are seeing. Usually, they want to come back. Grassroots is person by person. That’s how it works, unless you’re Madonna.

Marjani at Queensborough

Marjani Forte Saunders teaches a masterclass at Queensborough Community College as part of her residency

Photo by Ian Douglas


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