A Celebratory and Scrappy Farewell (and Hello) in Queens
Siobhan Burke, New York Times
Siobhan Burke, New York Times
As Pride marches filled the city over the weekend, a festive procession of a different kind was making its way through Long Island City, Queens. On Sunday afternoon, accompanied by a live brass band and the screeching 7 train overhead, a small but enthusiastic crowd walked — and danced — the mile and a half from 5-49 49th Avenue to 38-29 24th Street.
Those addresses are the old and new locations of the Chocolate Factory Theater, an artist-run organization known for giving performers ample space, time and freedom to create. After 17 years in its idiosyncratic rented building on 49th Avenue, the theater is moving to a larger — and probably equally idiosyncratic — permanent home on 24th Street. On Wednesday, the Chocolate Factory’s founders and directors, Sheila Lewandowski and Brian Rogers, will turn over the keys to the space they have leased since 2004 — whose white brick walls have witnessed hundreds of adventurous performances. (Rogers said the next tenant will be “a doggy spa” whose owners plan to renovate.)
To bid its longtime home farewell, the theater hosted two afternoons of performances on Saturday and Sunday along the street outside the old building, culminating in Sunday’s procession across the neighborhood. The “outdoor quasi-mini-‘festival,’” as it was billed, featured more than 20 artists whose work has been presented by the Chocolate Factory. In offerings from Justin Allen, Maria Bauman, Ayano Elson, Keely Garfield, Heather Kravas, Marion Spencer, the musical duo Yackez and many others, the spirit was celebratory and scrappy, a fitting tribute to the rough-edged space indoors.
That intimate space has often seemed inseparable from the work that happens there, its quirks an endless source of choreographic inspiration. Ask Chocolate Factory regulars what they’ll miss about it, and they might mention the nails sticking out of the walls, the exposed radiators or — a favorite feature — the elevator shaft in one corner, which connected the bright upstairs theater with the murky basement (also used for performances).
“I’ve always loved the elevator shaft and watching what people do with that nook, how people crawl in and out of it,” said Alexandra Rosenberg, the executive director of Center for Performance Research in Brooklyn, who attended both days of the festival. As a house manager at the Chocolate Factory from 2007 to 2012, she also developed a fondness for works that migrated between upstairs and downstairs: “The basement is pretty doomy-gloomy and brings you into kind of a nightmare. It was very effective for a lot of shows.”
On Sunday, the dancers Anna Sperber and Angie Pittman began a duet in that underground space before leading the audience out to the street — technically the last performance inside the old building.
While the rawness of the interior could pose challenges, that was also part of its appeal. “Sometimes a perfectly outfitted, pristine space is not really in line with messy, dirty, sweaty, smelly dance,” said Garfield, who led Saturday’s audience in a simple and playful dance routine to “New York, New York.”
Compelled to contend with the architecture, “People did really creative things,” said the choreographer Ishmael Houston-Jones, who stopped by the festival on Saturday. He recalled a work by Antonio Ramos that transformed the awkward entryway — narrow and slanted — into a tunnel, through which the audience exited at the end of the show.
“I liked the surfaces of everything,” said Kravas, who on Sunday danced a resolute sidestepping solo to “Repetition” by the Fall, at one point disappearing into the building. (In keeping with the song, she did the whole thing again later on.) “You really worked with the walls and floor and nails and radiators. In a way, the space was like another body.”
The space could cast a spell even from afar. “I found the Chocolate Factory through the internet,” Elson said on Saturday, after sharing a meditative passage of a recent work. As a college student, she spent hours immersed in the theater’s vast, public Vimeo archive, which includes full-length recordings of performances. Before she ever visited in person, she said, it was “a space that I adored and learned from.”
Without permission to really explore, artists might not have found the space so generative. Rogers and Lewandowski, artists themselves (they used to be collaborators, and were married and then divorced), have placed few limitations on what people can do there.
“When they say, ‘Come here and play and experiment and move the furniture around and don’t worry about making a mess,’ it really creates an atmosphere that is conducive to discovery and surprise,” said Garfield, who had several residencies in the old building.
As the theater settles into its new home — two adjacent warehouses that were once a tool and die factory — that ethos will likely endure, along with the founders’ cultivation of local relationships. Spend some time outside the old space talking with Lewandowski, who lives on the same block, and you won’t get far without a friendly interruption, as she catches up with neighbors passing by.
For Bauman — who offered an excerpt on Sunday from her work “Desire: A Sankofa Dream,” a potent pairing of dance and poetry — that neighborly mind-set matters.
“One thing I’ve appreciated about the Chocolate Factory,” she said, “is that they’ve thought of themselves not only as a home for artists, but as a neighbor to the people and businesses and families who are already here.” When invited to perform at the farewell, she added, “I felt a lot of trust that it wouldn’t be an imposition on the neighborhood.”
It was a local band, the four members of Liftoff Brass, whose music fueled the procession from one Queens theater to another. Lewandowski led the way, stopping on street corners to dance. Along 23rd Street, she pointed out the Chocolate Factory’s namesake, a former confectionary where she and Rogers once shared a studio with visual artists.
But the mood was more forward-looking than nostalgic; there was much to celebrate. Through a rare arrangement with the city, the Chocolate Factory has come to own its new building debt-free, a big deal for a New York nonprofit of its size. To have a permanent facility, Rogers said, “is the only way I know of for a small or midsize group like ours to survive long-term.” The first season in the new building is scheduled to begin in October, he said.
As the march reached its destination, crossing the threshold of a cool and echoey warehouse, fresh possibilities came into view: a staircase ascending to a small balcony; new nooks and wall protrusions; skylights letting in the late-afternoon sun.
“The space inside the old Chocolate Factory is a space inside each of us,” Garfield had said the day before, “so we will carry it with us into the next space.”
Siobhan Burke for the New York Times, June 30, 2021