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Community Centers: CPR

Celia McGerr Regan '79

John Jasperse is an original, a dancer and dancemaker whose work has been called innovative, provocative, deeply felt, and influential. Now he’s taken a new step, one designed to foster dance and serve a variety of the arts.

Early in 2009, Jasperse and a fellow choreographer, Jonah Bokaer, opened The Center for Performance Research (or CPR) in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. The 4,000-square-foot performance space and gallery is located in Greenbelt, an award-winning, sustainable real estate development. Several things set this space apart. First, CPR raises funds to subsidize rental rates so that cash-strapped artists can book professional space without breaking the bank. Second, CPR is a LEED-certified green building, the first performance space of its kind. And third, CPR is a project that its founders call “a community center—part of the cultural fabric” of Brooklyn.

Jasperse wasn’t always focused on community building, he notes. “After college, I was an independent artist, and so were the people I worked with then—they still are.” Jasperse’s work became increasingly focused on collaboration, while still reflecting the creative freshness of his refusal to be dependent on particular styles or points of view.

In 1996, he created the John Jasperse Company and began to think more directly about collaborative work and a community of dancers—as well as his audiences. “Artists can say, ‘Oh I just need to push myself,’ but I learned that it’s more important to see the connection between me, my work, and my community.”

CPR is a more recent effort to serve that community. New York’s legendary support for the arts was losing a bit of its luster when Jasperse graduated from the College. “Over the 25 years I’ve been working here, resources have, generally speaking, become more restrained. I arrived just when the party ended, and I’ve watched the infrastructure for support disappear. But I’ve been fortunate, managing to have opportunities that not everyone comes across.” CPR has grown out of a desire to share those opportunities with the city’s artists—“spread support outward, not keep it self-contained.”

CPR co-founder Jonah Bokaer recounts the beginning of the project: “Working with our developer, Derek Denckla, John and I largely created CPR on our own—two sets of hands, two laptops, twenty fingers, thousands and thousands of e-mails.

“We wanted to make it work at all costs. It was certainly a tough call to start a business in January 2009, right after the recession. But providing affordable space—especially green space, which is important to both the local and the greater community—was important to us.”

I learned that it’s more important to see the connection between me, my work, and my community.

CPR boasts two multipurpose studios, one of which doubles as a performance space and the other as an art gallery. Jasperse and Bokaer wanted “the white cube,” Bokaer says, “because we felt there were already enough black-box theatres of a certain size in the city.” They marshaled support from the New York State Council for the Arts and several other sources, and hold a fall benefit to provide ongoing funding.

In just a short time, CPR has reached scores of performers, and Jasperse sees a critical connection between the CPR model and building a wider network of like-minded dancers. “Our CPR community is primarily local, but some visiting artists, including international artists, are using the space as well because it connects them to a broader dialogue,” he says.

Jasperse’s goals include a drive to connect contemporary dance “to a broad public,” while still making work that pushes boundaries. Community both shapes and deepens his work, he says, adding, “I’m not interested in living in a city that doesn’t have a community of working artists. It’s why I came to New York. Here I find both diversity and the ability to have independence in terms of artistic expression.”

And the public? Essential, he says. “Dance changes quite dramatically when there’s an audience in the room.”

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