Title: Choreographer, Dancer, SoHo Broadway Resident
Organization: Douglas Dunn + Dancers/ Rio Grande Union, Inc.
Year of arrival on SoHo Broadway: 1972
Address: 541 Broadway
What brought you to SoHo Broadway? What do you do here?
As a youngster having lived the outdoor life of northern California, I came east to attend Princeton University and gradually made the uneasy choice between high culture and sublime countryside. After teaching for three years at a prep school in Connecticut, I moved in 1968 to a fifth-floor walk-up at 247 Elizabeth Street in Little Italy. A friend had found the apartment. I barely knew Manhattan. By 1969 I had become a member of Merce Cunningham & Dance Company. My girlfriend and I heard about a loft opening up at 508 Broadway. Neither of us was doing our own choreography yet, so we did not really need the space. But while we were trying to decide, I had a dream. I was standing in the loft. The back wall was missing. In place of the buildings that are in waking life there, I saw the African savanna, teeming with animals. The vision was telling me that dancing was to be my life. We moved. I lived and worked there for ten years. In 1982 I moved up the street here to this larger loft at 541 Broadway. I and my company, Douglas Dunn + Dancers, are still here.
What do you like about SoHo Broadway?
I like the proportions of the neighborhood. The buildings are beautiful, and the large interior spaces welcoming. The proportions are “human,” the body not dwarfed by skyscrapers. The rest of Manhattan just keeps ascending, making me dizzy. In the ‘70s, these streets were empty. The factories had closed. Artists were moving in, “live/work space”, illegal. The neighborhood became an aesthetic enclave, engendering rich exchanges of ideas leading to powerful shifts in the arts. By the ‘80s many art galleries had moved from the upper east side to SoHo. Later they moved to Chelsea. It was the beginning of the development we see now, highly commercial. I preferred the pioneering days. But for those of us who bought in early, the rising real estate value has proved a financial benefit.
What is your favorite SoHo Broadway memory or experience?
A favorite memory from the early ‘70s is a barbershop on Broome Street between Broadway and Mercer. The place was large, six chairs, but only one barber. As he cut he complained about artists preferring long hair. Once he got off that subject he would brag about the old days when big shots in limos pulled up and all the chairs were in action. His narrating conjured a neighborhood in full swing during an earlier high point.
Another favorite recollection is The Eagle Diner, a family-run, black-and-white- tiled diner on the northwest corner of Broadway and Spring, where the Nike store now glitters. Lunch was two dollars. The atmosphere was convivial. You met your friends, and made new ones.
If you had 20 minutes, where would you go?
I enjoy walking over to the corner of Prince and Mulberry. Most of the stores and eateries are new and expensive and corny. But the large church, on its large plot, surrounded by its magnificent red-orange brick wall, you can’t beat it. No one on those blocks has yet been able to build above the local average of four or five stories. In addition, while the many downtown used bookstores of yore have long since disappeared, an outlet selling new books opened a while ago on Prince Street, and has survived. My other haunt, an eight-minute walk, into a different neighborhood, is Washington Square Park. It’s half a block from where I teach at NYU. A haven, a saving grace. I sit amidst its exceptional trees and go mindless.
What should we know about you outside of working/living here? What do you do for fun or are you looking forward to doing?
Being here so long, I’ve come full circle. Many of us began showing our dancing in the lofts here in SoHo. By the late ‘70s, and well into the ‘90s, I was performing with my group as much in Europe as here in the USA. I still have seasons in the downtown venues in New York City, Danspace Project and others, but I’ve also returned to showing work in the studio. It’s big enough to do so. And I produce Salons, featuring poets, painters, musicians and dancers whom I know and whose work I respect. As for social life, well, to the extent I have any umph left at the end of the day, I go to see dance, or go with friends to the movies.