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SummerStage in the City

Published on
May 30

I caught up with Danni Gee over the phone one Thursday evening in early May. It’s the end of the day, almost the end of the week, but the excitement in her voice is fresh and genuine.

Gee is the dance curator at SummerStage, New York City’s annual outdoor summer performing arts series. SummerStage features over 100 music, dance, and theatre performances free of charge in the city’s parks all summer long. Increasing access for many of New York City’s communities to the sometimes financially and physically inaccessible world of the arts, SummerStage has established itself as a well-loved fixture of the New York arts landscape.

Small wonder, then, for Gee’s excitement—especially considering the line-up she’s put in place for this summer’s twelve dance productions. In connection with the 2013 festival’s celebration of the fortieth anniversary of hip-hop, NYC hip-hop dance legends the Rock Steady Crew will premiere their performance ‘RSC Ghetto Made’ in the Bronx and Central Park. The Martha Graham Company—a premier American modern dance troupe and, Gee notes, the basis of her own training as a dancer—will grace the Central Park mainstage on July 23 and 24. The dance lineup will also put performances in four outer-borough parks, which Gee refers to as the “heart and mission of the [SummerStage] program,” and every dance performance features a free master class open to the public.

Gee came late to the world of arts management. She started dancing at 12, a late age for an artist with professional ambitions. The late start didn’t stop her stellar rise: Gee danced first with the Philadelphia Dance Company, enjoyed her New York City debut at Lincoln Center, and spent several years as principal dancer of the renowned Alvin Ailey dance company until an injury brought her career to an early close. No slouch since, Gee sang and danced with Sister Sledge and Gloria Gaynor before making her home at SummerStage in 2006. She says that her artistic training has influenced her curatorial work with the arts festival. Describing herself as educated in a “very emotional and reckless way of dancing,” Gee confesses that she looks for a similar raw quality in the dancers she invites to SummerStage’s performances. And she also promises that her career as a dancer and her history of injury gives her the experience to look out on behalf of her performers, who, exposed to the elements in SummerStage’s outdoor venues, might otherwise dance under potentially dangerous conditions.

When I ask Gee what she finds most rewarding in the SummerStage curation, she doesn’t hesitate. She lists SummerStage’s ability to give a platform to emerging dance organizations, including companies of color, and to bring outstanding performing-arts organizations to communities in New York City that experience little access to the performing art world. She speaks with affection of the kids who watch as the shows are set up and stay to see the dance performances afterwards. Gee hopes that SummerStage can “formulate a new love for dance and the arts” for the audiences who enjoy its performances, some of whom “may never have seen a dance show.”

This is SummerStage’s promise. While the arts in an ideal world should be as accessible and inviting as a neighbourhood garden, the performing-art world can in fact become a kind of forbidding gated community, requiring audiences to enjoy a steep degree of educational and financial privilege to access the elegance they provide. This is especially true in New York, a city of staggering inequality in resources and institutional access. Heading to all five boroughs, putting on its concerts free of charge, and furnishing a crucial educational component along with its performances. SummerStage can provide a key to those gates. Gee calls SummerStage’s performances a way to keep the arts alive, and I’m inclined to think she’s right.