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Michael Kaiser

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City Center: A Remarkable History

Posted: 10/31/11 09:06 AM ET

It is thrilling that City Center in New York City has re-opened this month after a substantial renovation effort.

City Center was built as a Shriners temple; when the Shriners could no longer afford to pay the taxes owed on the facility during the Depression, the building became the property of New York City. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia decided to turn the building into a theater for music and dance. Following its opening in 1943, City Center became the home to the nascent New York City Ballet and New York City Opera. (Imagine the Balanchine ballets that received their premieres at City Center!)

The theater also presented important theatrical events. Artists including Helen Hayes, Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn, Gwen Verdon and many others performed on its stage. Many Broadway shows were revived at City Center including Oklahoma!, Carousel and South Pacific.

More recently, Manhattan Theatre Club has been a long-time resident of City Center; important works including Love! Valour! Compassion! and Doubt had their premieres there.

Twice in my career I have had the pleasure to work in this great theater. City Center has been the home to Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for decades; it has hosted the company's great dancers from Judith Jamison to Desmond Richardson to Matthew Rushing. In 1997, we started a fall season there for American Ballet Theatre to present the repertory works that did not show well at the much larger Metropolitan Opera House. The ballets of Antony Tudor, Twyla Tharp, Frederick Ashton and others now have a proper home.

Over the years, the building was threatened with demolition, perhaps most seriously after the construction of Lincoln Center when both New York City Ballet and New York City Opera decamped. But, fortunately, arts and civic leaders, especially Howard Squadron, saw a role for this venerable venue and the theater was saved.

When the dance world reached its nadir in the 1980s, City Center suffered; there were many fewer bookings and long periods of inactivity. In response, staff leaders of City Center developed two of the most innovative arts series in New York. The Encore! series that presents semi-staged versions of classic (and often underappreciated) musicals has produced many important revivals, including the remarkably successful revival of "Chicago" in 1996 that moved to Broadway and continues to run.

More recently, the President of City Center, Arlene Shuler, created Fall for Dance, a sampler series of many of the best dance companies and dancers in the world at very affordable prices. Both series have become eagerly anticipated staples of performance calendar.

The current renovation of City Center makes it a far more comfortable venue to visit. Sightlines are improved and the visibility of the venue, always a problem for this mid-block facility, has been enhanced.

The ghosts of George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Alvin Ailey and too many others to name are hopefully still in residence, inspiring a new generation of artists to create great works.

I can't wait to see them.