The founders of the Kaatsbaan International Dance Center have dedicated nearly a quarter of a century to the cause of preserving and advancing dance. The nonprofit Kaatsbaan (Dutch for “playing field”), located on 153 acres above the Hudson River in Tivoli on a historic site that was once home to Eleanor Roosevelt’s grandparents, has housed dancers from all disciplines, giving them a most important element for their creative processes: space.
“We wanted to create a place with lots of space, which is such a necessity for dancers,” says president and co-founder Bentley Roton, referring to the decline of available practice and rehearsal spaces in the closest major dance locus, New York City. “For years, dancers rented studios in old warehouses or factories or garment centers. And they’d eventually lose them when the properties were taken over to be refurbished. There are now very few places for dancers to work. Sometimes they have to rent studios by the hour, which is very expensive. You might have an hour in Midtown or down on Canal Street, and then for the next couple of hours you have to get to some space up in the Bronx. It’s gotten to the point that dancers can no longer afford the real estate. This is a crisis for much of the dance world.”
In 1990 Roton teamed up with Martine van Hamel, one of the major dancers of the 20th century, Kevin McKenzie, director of American Ballet Theater (ABT) in New York, and Gregory Cary, artistic director at Kaatsbaan, to buy the property and develop the basic structures needed to conduct workshops and rehearsals. Kaatsbaan has three large studios, one of which becomes a performance space for showcasing new works, plus a new housing facility for extended residencies.
Open year-round, Kaatsbaan appeals to troupes large and small and from all over the world. They come to Kaatsbaan to create new dance works, to rehearse for a few weeks and then take their performance pieces to New York and often open to great success – because they had adequate space to work. Roton says that dancers can practice 24 hours a day if they want to, without having to schlep around a busy town or worry about their accommodations.
“In the summer we have a program for young pre-professionals, ones who are serious about becoming dancers; they’ve already been studying for a number of years, so they want to get themselves ready to compete or audition for the major dance companies, like ABT or the New York City Ballet or the San Francisco Ballet. Many go to Europe from here. Started in 2000, the summer intensive training program lasts nine weeks. We’ve had the privilege of watching these young dancers blossom into very good dancers. And 15 years into the project, some of them are coming back with professional companies to be a part of the creation of new work.”
At Kaatsbaan, professionals and students alike experience all aspects of putting together new choreographic works. No one steps onto the stage as a prima ballerina. They learn to function as a company. When a new program is showcased in front of the public, they can see what works and what doesn’t before taking it to the city. “We have quite an intelligent dance audience up here,” says Roton. “The whole program brings new people to the area, which is good for tourism, good for the economy. Recently we hosted a gala attended by all the principal performers, along with their fans. It was a magnificent occasion.”
The founders’ long-range goals include having a total of eight studios. Roton explains how works are often created in a small studio and then must be “stretched out” to cover a giant stage. The studios at Kaatsbaan allow for full movement for as many as 65 dancers at a time, flying about and using every inch of the floor.