Henry Street Settlement opened its doors this past weekend for a festive open house and introduction to their new Director of Education, esteemed dancer and choreographer Robert La Fosse. La Fosse was a long time Principal Dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, as well as the New York City Ballet. In addition to his work in classical ballet, La Fosse starred in Broadway productions of Bob Fosse’s Dancin’ and Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, for which he received a Tony Award nomination for Best Actor.
He will helm a program that offers more than 100 classes a year and has an annual enrollment of more than 500 students. He also is charged with the direction of the Abrons Dance Ensemble and Urban Youth Theater, as well as the Abrons’ extensive programs in New York City public schools. TLD Contributor Royal Young spoke with La Fosse at the open house.
A passionate piano player and full band were installed upstairs where golden afternoon sunlight poured in over drums, cello and violins. There was a silk screen station with Evelyn Donnelly offering free Abrons Arts Center shirts in multi-colored prints. Wine, juice and tea sandwiches were served.
Every room of the historic building was bursting with activity. In the downstairs theater, a dance performance took place. Each dancer isolated by what seemed to be household actions of immigrants or pilgrims—pioneers immersed in the sound of rain, a stark piano, a lonely violin.
Break dancers upstairs paid homage to the hip hop history of the Lower East Side. With young drummer, David Rosenbaum, banging out the beats. I caught up with the beaming new Education Director and we stole a few minutes in a corner of the theater to talk about Henry Street’s past and future, the importance of the arts and what he makes of the funky Lower East Side:
YOUNG: What brought you here?
LA FOSSE: I performed here as Isadora Duncan about five years ago. And I found out that she had performed here, so I was feeling the Isadora Duncan vibes. Then I met Jay Wegman and he asked me if I wanted to teach a workshop here and also told me about a position that was opening. I said I would love to teach the workshop, but I was very interested in the position opening. You said “You would want to work here?” and I said, “Absolutely!” I just love the spirit of this theatre, the energy down here. I come from a middle class family.
YOUNG: Are you from New York?
LA FOSSE: No, I’m from Beaumont, Texas. And my parents couldn’t really afford to pay for dance lessons. I was fortunate that I got a scholarship and went to the Marsha Woody academy of dance. I started my training and that’s where my life changed. Everything made sense to me when I was dancing. I never looked back and I feel so fortunate to have been given those classes. This whole journey for me is about giving back.
YOUNG: The joy in giving a child that opportunity and seeing how it changes their perspective both on themselves and what they can do and where they can go.
LA FOSSE: The arts transform people. They’re completely overlooked and misunderstood.
YOUNG: Misunderstood how?
LA FOSSE: The education system has sort of put them last and I believe they should be first.
YOUNG: Me too.
LA FOSSE: I think they should be encouraged to explore any kind of artistic endeavor. I think it helps with academics. It helped my self-esteem, it helped me to be disciplined, it made me the person I am today. I’m really interested in education and giving back what I was given. What I like about Abrons is that they are forward thinking and not stuck to tradition. Children are encouraged to try new things.
YOUNG: Do you get a sense of the neighborhood itself? The Lower East Side?
LA FOSSE: I live in the West Village and I’m just starting to get a sense of the culture down here. I think (interesting) people come here. That’s what I want. I want to bring in top notch, quality teachers that people will (want to) come and take classes from. So I’m taking inventory right now and seeing where we can go from here.