How refreshing that someone of prominence has finally taken up my crusade to defend Philip Johnson's New York State Theater from the best intentions of the New York City Ballet. This morning, in a review of the company's season premier, Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay writes:
"The upstairs foyer of the David H. Koch Theater, as designed by the architect Philip Johnson, is this theater's triumph: a huge tall plaza in which the space above people becomes as potent as it does in a ballet. In recent seasons, however, it has been repeatedly spoiled by intrusive furniture and twee nondance photographs, as if in an effort to turn its marvelous grandeur into something cozy."
This is absolutely true, and is unfortunately only the latest instance of the Ballet's poor design stewardship. The Promenade is one of New York's great public rooms; Johnson imagined such a space decades before the building was even built, and had to fight for years with ballet founder Lincoln Kirstein to make it a reality, because it came at the expense of backstage space for the dancers. Johnson didn't care: he had zero interest in dance, but a great obsession with public spectacle.
Because the ballet audience is aging, and because the space lacks energy when not filled, the Ballet last year commissioned three young design firms to create a trio of seating arrangements for the Promenade. It's hard not to applaud this as an act of patronage: the Ballet sought out young talent, and gave them some considerable artistic freedom. The results, however, fail on the most essential of levels: they are not particularly inviting as seating and they mar the flow and look of the room. They float around the space like plastic bottles on the open sea, design flotsam and jetsam. When they first appeared, I called the architect John Manley, the longtime Johnson associate who helped create that room, wondering about his opinion: he was appalled.
The good news is that removing these installations will be easy — they are temporary. One hopes that public shaming in the Times will spur the ballet to action. Not so easy to fix, however, are some of the other physical alterations to the building, specifically the company's dramatic renovation of the theater seating, in which broad aisles were run through the orchestra, forever compromising Johnson's concept. (I complained about that on this site in a discussion here of the broader changes at Lincoln Center.) And then there's the name. The citizens of New York paid for this theater with their tax dollars, and that's why it was called the New York State Theater. It was recently renamed for the conservative billionaire David Koch. From the 99 percent to the 1 percent. That may be what an arts organization needs to survive, but it does not bode well for the future of ballet, or culture generally.