‘Construction Company’: Quality work on a shoestring


By Jaclyn Marinese

As executive director of the Construction Company, a non-profit arts organization and performance space, Carolyn Lord has created her own preservationist niche in the downtown dance community.

“Carolyn Lord is a renaissance woman who can make theater happen on a shoestring,” said Sally Gross, an independent choreographer who has worked with Lord for more than ten years.

“Once you’ve committed yourself to working at the Construction Company, it just seems to happen; the concert, the program, the reservations, the box office and the refreshments.”

With performances and concerts ranging from about $5 to $15 each, The Construction Company sustains a casual atmosphere, while still presenting serious works.

But maintaining her space as lower Manhattan transforms from the grungy neighborhoods that once fueled a strong artist community, into zones of expensive real estate has been a challenge for Lord. With the Construction Company, she works diligently to uphold a comfortable atmosphere for edgy dance, music, and installation art, seemingly without breaking a sweat.

“Carolyn’s place is kind of beautifully poised,” said Marjorie Gamso, an independent choreographer whose work will appear at the Construction Company on November 9th.

“On the one hand there are places that seem like business ventures and are ambition oriented and on the other extreme are people that just want to do it for fun. The Construction Company has struck a balance and I don’t know many other places that have succeeded in doing that.”

It is that balance that makes the Construction Company so unique. The third floor space is an intimate, three-section loft on 18th Street, west of Union Square. The main dance floor becomes a stage during performances and seats about sixty people. There is also a small gallery space used for an installation series entitled “Art Under Construction.” The upcoming season features sculpture by Ruth Marshall, a group show curated by Lauren Farber, and a show curated by Rika Burnham.

The homemade, yet professional atmosphere at the Construction Company makes it a place where artists can feel free to be themselves.

“I think we attract people that have some kind of mix of the standard techniques and have come from one of the technical traditions, but their pieces aren’t about doing dances to music in that tradition,” explains Lord while referring to artists like Becky Windmiller and Christopher Caines.

“A lot of the choreographers that work here are people that really want to choreograph but the economics have really driven them away from it. So we try to keep those people in tact and dancing.”

Casual Sunday performances are meant to bring new artists to the space as well as provide more established artists a chance to perform works in progress.

“Performing on a Sunday is how artists usually get introduced to the space,” says Lord, “because we don’t have that big of a staff to go out and look for things to produce.”

Lighting is another aspect that seems to magically happen. In 1991 Lord inherited the 14th Street Stage Lighting Inc., a company originally owned by the late Obie Award-winning lighting designer John Dodd. She ran both companies but it eventually became overwhelming. She then passed the job on to an old dancing colleague, Richard Michaels, who now provides the Construction Company with all of its lighting.

Though much of her time goes to running the space, Lord has also made great strides as an artist and practitioner of modern dance. A classically trained ballet dancer, Lord is known for going against the grain of traditional dance styles, and embracing the concept of natural movement.

“She herself is quite a serious artist and she doesn’t really have that much availability to show it,” says Gamso. “To keep a loft going is a business, and you make the space available to others, but don’t always have time for your own work.”

Lord came to New York in the 70’s after earning a degree in Russian Literature from the University of Chicago. Having danced most of her young life, she was determined to follow her dream and started studying at the Cunningham studio.

“In those days there were ballet schools all over town,” said Lord. “Now the rents are just too high…New York School of Ballet is now a Barnes & Noble.”

After receiving a Masters Degree in composition from the Mannes College of Music in the early 1990’s, Lord got together with composers, to begin “Music Under Construction,” a series of contemporary classical musicians that produce works at the company, directed by Chris Woltmann.

The original Construction Company space was on Laguardia, with a rent of $400 a month for a 5000-square-foot loft. In 1978, the group moved into the space on 18th street, where the rent was $575.

“In about a year from that rents were skyrocketing,” says Lord. “It happened rather quickly at the end of the 70’s.” Though a lot of artists lost their spaces, Lord says she was able to keep the space because it was protected by the city’s loft laws.

The company operates with a small grant from the New York State Council of the Arts for music, a yearly benefit party, outreach for private contributions, and any small profit the space receives from productions, though Lord admits that they usually just break even.

As for the future of the Company, Lord looks forward to remaining in their current space in order to provide opportunities for small works.

“We’re never going to be like the Dance Theater Workshop that went all the way and got that whole new building,” says Lord. “So I think we’re probably happier to just keep this as a sideline space and not work to becoming the Schubert Theater or something like that. We can keep an experimental edge.”