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New York Times
22 Apr 2023

NextImg:An Artist-Run Dance Space That’s ‘All Presentation, Baby’

One evening last month at Pageant, a performance space in Brooklyn, a line of people spilled down a flight of stairs and onto the sidewalk below. The occasion? A dance by a choreography start-up called SECT, inc. It was the group’s first ensemble work, and it had a specific aim: to explore both the individuality of its dancers and space.

Space, as it happened, was shrinking by the minute. By the time all those on the wait list were planted in their seats — meaning spread across the floor — the stage area had lost a decent chunk of depth.

Even so, as the lights went down, the dance came to glittering life as its performers filled Pageant with emphatic footwork and low kicks to create a hypnotic rhythm. They looked like enchanted folk dancers as they etched linear patterns and lines onto the floor with razor precision. Within this tightly choreographed tapestry was exuberance and urgency but also a sense of confinement.

That feeling of walls closing in on you? It was intentional and made possible by the place in which the dance was created: Pageant — “a dream of a theater that has been handed to us by these really generous and special friends,” Josie Bettman, who directs SECT, inc., with Lavinia Eloise Bruce, said later.

ImageTwo women are hanging on the back of a man whose head we don’t see. The women look toward the camera. They’re in a studio and we see a building through the window.
Leaning in to community, craft and imagination: Sharleen Chidiac, left, and Jade Manns, two of Pageant’s founders, at the space in East Williamsburg.

What is Pageant? It doesn’t seem right to nail it down. It’s many necessary things: an artist-run performance space on Graham Avenue in East Williamsburg. A community. A celebration of imagination and craft.

And it is a life saver: a much-needed destination for dance, born from the minds and bodies of a new generation of choreographers and performers.

Dance has felt as if it’s been stuck in a holding pattern, still trying to overcome pandemic setbacks, with institutions small and large programming more or less the same choreographers from season to season. When presenters do take a chance on a less established dance-maker, the pressure for that artist is intense. How can that be good for the freedom that artistic experimentation requires? To experiment, choreographers need rehearsal space, and that too has become more scarce.

Members of SECT inc. warming up at Pageant before their performance, their first ensemble work, in March.
Lavinia Eloise Bruce (in white), a director of SECT inc., with Ella Dawn W-S.

That said, it has been especially galvanizing to witness the progress at Pageant, which celebrates its one-year anniversary this month with a gala and a fund-raising campaign.

Formed by Sharleen Chidiac, Jade Manns, Owen Prum and Alexa West — young dance artists who have shown intriguing and invigorating work at the space — Pageant was born last April as an alternative to the shared work-in-progress showcases that are typically afforded to emerging dance and performance artists.

Over the past year, the crowds milling in front of its building have grown. A sprinkling of people tentatively used to approach its nondescript door under an arresting sign, “Color Beauty Supply,” shaped almost like a candy cane. Now it seems that just about everyone knows where Pageant — a long, lean space above that beauty supply store and, until recently, a nail salon — is. (While the space, up two flights of stairs, is not accessible to people with disabilities, subscribers to the crowdfunding site Patreon have access to Pageant’s performance archive filmed by Kayhl Cooper.)

The Pageant founders, from left: Owen Prum, Manns, Chidiac and Alexa West. “We’re interested in presentation,” West said. “There’s something about Pageant that felt almost so strong and cheeky about that, but also stark.”

At Pageant, dance artists meld exacting technique with everyday movement to create work in which its seems nothing is left to chance. They are not into the somatic experience; they don’t really improvise. Composition and choreography matter.

So does theater. Makeup and hair are integral, as are costumes, which too often seem like last-minute decisions in experimental dance. At Pageant, the look of a work is as important as the dancing. It’s an aesthetic of the everyday — at least as it manifests itself in this part of Brooklyn, where people embrace sparkle and skin. That look is cultivated yet has the air of being carefree. That’s the Pageant aesthetic, too. You could call its brand of experimental dance everyday spectacle.

“We’re interested in presentation,” West, 31, said. “There’s something about Pageant that felt almost so strong and cheeky about that, but also stark.”

Bruce, left, and Josie Bettman of SECT inc., after the performance. “A dream of a theater that has been handed to us by these really generous and special friends,” Bettman said.
The crowd at Pageant. Fashion statements are made on and off the stage.

That elaborate, forthright aesthetic is in contrast to spaces and institutions that prize process and practice, “which we love,” West added. “But we wanted to go in the opposite direction. We’re like, we’re all presentation, baby. We are a pageant.”

In addition to performances — generally biweekly — Pageant hosts talks with established choreographers, like Mariana Valencia and Beth Gill. And it offers rehearsal space in the form of memberships: For $200 a month, dance artists get 20 hours of rehearsal time.

The founders each pay a membership fee and volunteer their time for various Pageant duties. And each has other jobs — Manns, 25, teaches dance in the public schools; Prum, 27, is a part-time dancer and restaurant worker; Chidiac, 31, does freelance movement direction. West, through her success at producing Pageant’s Instagram account, has started working in marketing. Juggling it all is not easy.

“No one’s parents are giving us money,” Manns said. “We really make all the money ourselves. I think sometimes people think that we’re just rich kids. It’s not how we’re doing it.”

When they present work at Pageant, they get a cut of the door, as all of the artists do. “We’re giving really early career artists a space to have a fairly high quality experience of presenting their work, which doesn’t really happen that much anymore,” Manns said. “It feels like if you’re early career, you have to apply to these little showcases and you get 15 minutes and you just do that for years.”

CreditCredit...OK McCausland for The New York Times

For her vivid, transporting “Procession” at Pageant in February, West was able to pay her dancers $230 each. “I usually go broke after a show,” she said. “It was nice not to be.” The money came mainly from ticket sales.

At Pageant, at least, dance sells — and not only to dancers. On some nights, it’s mainly a dance-world audience; on others, the dance-curious come too. It’s a warm environment — festive yet focused — and fashion and design, on and off the stage, is something to behold. While the crowd tends to be youthful, the founders would like to make Pageant more intergenerational. “It does feel like it’s very young, and we’re aware of that,” West said. “We’re, like, really excited and welcoming of the older generation because we love all that stuff so much and it’s part of our interest.”

“We’re not like, bleh,” Manns said.

“We’re not punks,” West added.

And when more established choreographers come to Pageant, there’s excitement. “When Tere O’Connor asked to rehearse here,” Chidiac said, “I was like, yes! He had one rehearsal here, and I was like, we did it!”

The roots of the space grew as many creative bonds in the dance world do — through friendship. Manns and Prum both attended N.Y.U. Tisch School of the Arts, but didn’t get to know each other until they found themselves in a performance together. And Chidiac performed in a work by West who, later, asked Prum to be in a dance.

And then,” Chidiac said to West. “You made a dance with all of us.”

SECT inc. receives a round of applause from the tightly packed audience.

Then came the pandemic, which cemented their artistic partnership. The four worked out of a space known as 464 — the address of the apartment where Chidiac and Manns were living in Ridgewood, Queens. It functioned as a rehearsal space with performances or, as West put it, “a studio that we had shows at.” But it “had a lot of limitations,” she added, “because people lived there.”

They didn’t have an internet presence, and they didn’t promote the space. They didn’t want it to blow up. It had a following anyway. Shows would invariably turn into parties. “And cops would come,” Prum said.

When Manns and Chidiac moved out of 464, they all agreed that they needed a new space: 464 had opened a door for them to be artists in New York. How could they give that up?

Chidiac, who grew up doing competitive cheerleading, not dancing, thinks Pageant would have come into existence without the pandemic, but that the shutdown accelerated it. “I think everyone learned how to self-produce during the pandemic,” West said. “We all were like, we want to keep doing this. We don’t want to wait to get our applications approved or feel that if my application doesn’t get through, I don’t get to show work.

“We need to make work in order to grow, and we can also help other people to do that.”

SECT inc. dancers warming up before their show.
Manns, West and Chidiac.

Pageant is at an interesting point in its young life: There are so many people asking to have shows there that, Chidiac said, “we have to figure out how to fit everyone that we care about,” as well as “the other new people that we want to invite into the space. It’s more than what we can handle.”

These are not easy times to establish an artist-run space. When the four founders — who run operations along with Lili Dekker — came upon the Graham Avenue loft on Craigslist, they loved it, but the cost was prohibitive. “We were like all right, never mind,” Chidiac said. “We kept looking and saw other more affordable but really sad spaces.”

Two months passed, and Graham Avenue was still available. “We’re like, that’s a sign,” Chidiac said. “No one’s taken this gorgeous, empty room — it should be ours.”

They raised nearly $20,000 on GoFundMe in a week and a half. “That shows also how much people were really into 464 and wanted it to continue,” Manns said.

And the ethos of 464 is still at play. While performances have been successful, both in terms of artistry and ticket sales, Chidiac said it’s not so much about the end product but about the opportunity. “Whether you make a good piece or bad piece, it’s important for you to have that experience,” she said. “It’s not about being the venue that shows only a certain caliber of work.”

The founders at Pageant. “We’re a space, first and foremost,” Chidiac says. “We talk a lot about how we’re not really curators or presenters.”

“There’s just so much more to it,” Chidiac added. “Even if it’s a slightly underwhelming show, there’s something to that. And that’s, I think, what is a big difference about Pageant than other spaces.”

As word of Pageant has spread, other institutions have been in touch. “People are reaching out to us and being like, ‘Will Pageant come do something at our space?’” West said. “We’re a space, first and foremost. We talk a lot about how we’re not really curators or presenters. We’re more producers who want to show our own work, but also contextualize it with other people’s work.”

West said it doesn’t even feel like they do much curating. “We are just kind of slightly choosing people,” she said. “It’s mostly the people that come to us and who are our community.”

Pageant, its founders say, is not a collective. It’s a physical space. “I think the easiest way to think about how people can collaborate with us is they have to come here,” West said. “The room is Pageant, and the room might change one day, but it will be a physical space because I feel like the biggest asset and resource to dance is the big empty room.”