As the weekend Pride marches filled town, a different kind of festive procession passed through Long Island City, Queens. On Sunday afternoon, a small but enthusiastic crowd, accompanied by a live marching band and the screeching 7 train, ran – and danced – the mile and a half from 5-49 49th Avenue to 38-29 24th Street.
These addresses are the old and new locations of the Chocolate Factory Theater, an artist-run organization known for giving performers plenty of space, time, and freedom to create. After 17 years in its idiosyncratic rental building on 49th Avenue, the theater is moving to a larger – and probably equally idiosyncratic – permanent home on 24th Street. On Wednesday the founders and directors of the chocolate factory, Sheila Lewandowski and Brian Rogers, handed over the keys to the rooms, which have been rented since 2004, whose white brick walls have seen hundreds of adventurous performances. (Rogers said the next tenant will be a “doggy spa” whose owners are planning a renovation.)
To bid farewell to its long-standing home, the theater hosted two afternoons on Saturday and Sunday with performances along the street in front of the old building, culminating in the procession through the neighborhood on Sunday. The “outdoor quasi-mini-festival”, as it was called, presented more than 20 artists whose work was presented by the chocolate factory. In the performances of Justin Allen, Maria Bauman, Ayano Elson, Keely Garfield, Heather Kravas, Marion Spencer, the music duo Yackez and many others, the mood was solemn and gruff, a fitting homage to the rough room inside.
This intimate space often seemed inseparable from the work that takes place there; its quirks are an endless source of choreographic inspiration. Ask the Chocolate Factory regulars what they’re going to miss about it, and they might mention the nails sticking out of the walls, exposed radiators, or – a popular feature – the elevator shaft in one corner that houses the bright upstairs theater with gloomy basement association (also used for performances).
“I’ve always loved the elevator shaft and watched what people do with this corner, how people crawl in and out,” said Alexandra Rosenberg, executive director of the Center for Performance Research in Brooklyn, who attended both days of the festival. As house manager in the chocolate factory from 2007 to 2012, she also developed a predilection for work that wandered between upstairs and downstairs: “The basement is pretty doomy and gloomy and brings you into a kind of nightmare. It was very effective for many shows. “
On Sunday, the dancers Anna Sperber and Angie Pittman began a duet in this underground room before taking the audience out onto the street – technically the last performance in the old building.
While the rawness of the interior could be challenging, it was part of its appeal as well. “Sometimes a perfectly equipped, spotless room doesn’t really go with a messy, dirty, sweaty, smelly dance,” said Garfield, who took the audience to New York, New York on Saturday in a simple and playful dance routine.
Forced to grapple with architecture, “people did really creative things,” said choreographer Ishmael Houston-Jones, who stopped by the festival on Saturday. He remembered a work by Antonio Ramos that turned the awkward entrance – narrow and sloping – into a tunnel through which the audience stepped out at the end of the show.
“I liked the surface of everything,” said Kravas, who danced a resolute evasive solo to “Repetition” by the Fall on Sunday and disappeared into the building at some point. (To the song she did the whole thing again later.) “You really worked with walls and floors and nails and radiators. In a way, the room was like a different body. “
The room could be enchanting from afar. “I found the chocolate factory on the Internet,” Elson said Saturday after sharing a meditative passage from a recent paper. As a college student, she spent hours delving into the theater’s vast, public Vimeo archive, which contains full-length recordings of performances. Before ever visiting in person, she said it was “a space that I adored and learned from.”
Without permission to really explore, artists might not have found the space so generative. Rogers and Lewandowski, artists themselves (they used to be collaborators, married and then divorced), didn’t set the people there any limits.
“When they say, ‘Come here and play and experiment and move the furniture back and forth and don’t worry about making a mess,’ it really creates an atmosphere that is open to discovery and surprise,” said Garfield. who had several residences in the old building.
When the theater settles in its new home – two adjacent warehouses that were once a tool and mold factory – that ethos is likely to endure, along with the founders’ cultivation of local relationships. Spend some time outside the old room with Lewandowski who lives on the same block and you won’t get very far without a friendly break as she catches up with passing neighbors.
For Bauman – who presented an excerpt from her work “Desire: A Sankofa Dream” on Sunday, a strong pairing of dance and poetry – neighborly thinking is important.
“One thing I appreciate about the chocolate factory,” she said, “is that it not only sees itself as a home for artists, but also as a neighbor of the people, companies and families who are already here.” When she said goodbye was invited, she added: “I had great confidence that it would not be unreasonable for the neighborhood.”
It was a local band, the four members of Liftoff Brass, whose music fueled the move from one Queens theater to another. Lewandowski led the way, stopping to dance on street corners. Along 23rd Street, she pointed to the namesake of the Chocolate Factory, a former pastry shop where she and Rogers once shared a studio with visual artists.
But the mood was more forward-looking than nostalgic; there was a lot to celebrate. Through a rare deal with the city, the chocolate factory acquired its new building debt free, a big deal for a New York nonprofit of its size. Having a permanent facility, Rogers said, “is the only way I know for a small or medium-sized group like ours to survive long term.” The first season in the new build is slated to begin in October, he said.
As the march reached its destination and crossed the threshold of a cool and echoing warehouse, new possibilities came into view: a staircase that led to a small balcony; new corners and protrusions; Skylights let in the late afternoon sun.
“The room in the old chocolate factory is a room in each of us,” Garfield had said the day before, “so we’ll take it to the next room.”