By Tanya Gingerich Warren
Despite over 27 years in the community, the full scope of the Battery Dance Company is still unknown to many downtown residents. They may be familiar with the Downtown Dance Festival, the free outdoor dance concert the company has produced in Battery Park every summer since 1982. But they may not know about their Dance-in- Schools program for inner-city schools. They may also be unfamiliar with the company’s role as an international ambassador of the arts, performing around the world and bringing celebrated foreign dancers and choreographers to New York.
This is a dance company that wears many hats. It wouldn’t have it any other way.
Jonathan Hollander, the company’s founder, artistic director, and resident choreographer is a rarity: a man who, despite the constant struggle to keep the company financially viable, still runs it with the tireless enthusiasm and idealism of a college student.
“We are a dance company that sees itself as a vehicle for social change,” he said.
They have the track record to prove it, too. They have created programs for many schools including Washington Irving High and the Frank Sinatra School for the Arts in Queens.
Hollander recently founded the Downtown Dance Partners, an organization formed after 9/11 to address the particular needs of the downtown dance community. It includes groups such as Jane Comfort, Karole Armitage, the New York Chinese Cultural center and the Tribeca Performing Arts Center.
He did so because, despite the influx of funds to the area after 9/11, his dance company and many others did not benefit, he said.
“We received no support at all,” said Hollander.
After speaking with other dance companies in the area it became clear to Hollander and other artistic directors that they would benefit by joining forces.
This fall, the Downtown Dance Partners will launch its debut performance and most of the companies in the coalition will be represented. It will be a free concert on September 14 at Hollander’s new resident theater —the Tribeca Performing Arts Center at the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC.)
Hollander grew up in an artistic and socially aware home in Chevy Chase, MD, the second child of four to a mother who was a concert pianist and a father who was an anti-trust lawyer.
“I come from a family of people who are passionate, hard-working, and dedicated to change,” he said.
Growing up, Hollander studied classical music and performed in community theater. But it was in high school after he applied to be an exchange student that he took a trip that would change his life.
“In those days there was an element of fate involved. Because you didn’t choose which country you were placed in,” he said.
Hollander was sent to live with a family in India. It was the most eye-opening year of his life, he said. He returned home deciding to dedicate his life to dance. He also began a life-long involvement with Indian dance and culture.
“India changed my suburban mentality and awoke my passion for dance,” he said.
In 2001, the Battery Dance Company had its 5th national tour in India and Hollander continues to bring Indian dance companies to the U.S.
“There are eight classical dance forms in India, each very distinct, and hundreds of folk dances. It’s just incredible,” he said.
In 1992 Hollander went to India as a Fulbright scholar and founded the Indo-American arts council to facilitate cultural exchange between the two countries. The company’s dedication to international cultural exchange is apparent in the list of countries in which they have performed. Along with India, they include: Russia, Hungary, Bermuda, Sweden, Sri Lanka, Finland, Poland, Norway, Denmark, and Estonia. There is also a multicultural mix in the company itself. Its dancers come from around the world including: Japan, Sweden, Italy, Barbados, France and Slovenia.
After his revelatory high-school year in India, Hollander returned stateside to attend college at the University of California at Irvine during its heyday as an arts college.
“The most impressive people were there at the time. Eugene Loring (a well-respected Broadway choreographer and performer) became my mentor.”
Hollander also trained there with Merce Cunningham who offered him a scholarship to his school in New York. Once here Hollander went on to dance not only with Cunningham but with Twyla Tharp as well. Eventually, however, he decided to change course.
“I recognized I was not going to be a great dancer — I was not going to be the vessel. I had to re-think my role in dance,” he said.
That’s when he turned to choreographing.
“In the beginning I was very rigid as a choreographer, I thought I had to come to rehearsals with exactly what I wanted already worked out,” he said. “But now choreography for me is much more of a collaboration with my dancers. In fact, there are some pieces where I would be hard-pressed to tell you who came up with what.”
Hollander also commissions scores from composers for dances and feels these collaborations have been some of the richest of his career.
“I knew I had to be involved in dance,” said Hollander. “The musical, literary, visual art sides of me, my love of travel, and the desire for social change— they all came together in dance.”
They all come together in the Battery Dance Company as well.