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Thursday, February 16, 2017

Harvey's Road to BAM

Harvey Lichtenstein, 2nd from right, dancing with Bennington College Dance Group in 1953.
Photo: Lloyd Studio
Sixty-two years ago, Harvey Lichtenstein (1929—2017)—in his dancing debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music—could not have guessed that he would eventually transform the institution into a modern paradigm for performing arts. In 1955, he was performing with modern dance group Mary Anthony and Company on a program of four works. His experience as a professional dancer was one of several threads of experience, in addition to working in marketing, fundraising, and arts administration, that he would draw upon in the years prior to 1967, when he took over at BAM.

Program from Feb 16, 1955 BAM performance by Mary Anthony and Company, including Harvey Lichtenstein
Lichtenstein was born in 1929 in Brooklyn, where he grew up, attending Brooklyn Tech High School, and then Brooklyn College, where he studied dance. He developed an insatiable appetite for dance, particularly in the work of Martha Graham, even hitchhiking to Connecticut College in the late 1940s to see a performance by her company. He took classes in Manhattan at the New Dance Group—an enclave for modern dance, including Mary Anthony, with whom he would perform at BAM—and took up ballet as well. He also performed with modern choreographers Pearl Lang (a disciple of Graham), Sophie Maslow, and the Dance Drama Company.

Harvey at BAM in 1967
He received a summer scholarship at Black Mountain College in the early 1950s, where he crossed paths with a wide array of visionary artists working across genres including Jack Tworkov, Franz Kline, Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, Carolyn Brown, John Cage, and Remy Charlip. As a result of these relationships, the work of many of these artists would appear on BAM’s stages.

He was awarded a scholarship to Bennington College, where he majored in dance while studying literature as well. Back in New York, he danced with the New York City Opera corps de ballet. He then worked in fundraising at Brandeis University, where he continued dancing, setting and rehearsing Maslow’s pieces and studying dance.

Family responsibilities led him to stop dancing and pursue arts administration to set him on a path which would eventually lead him to BAM. He received a Ford Foundation fellowship in arts administration at New York City Ballet in the company’s first year at Lincoln Center. He gained approval from impresario Lincoln Kirstein for his then-novel idea for a ticket subscription package. As Lichtenstein said in his oral history, “... working next to someone like Balanchine, with Jerome Robbins... it was clear to me that this was really what I wanted to do. This really stoked my passion and really charged me up. Plus the fact that I had a broad interest in music and painting, and then I began to get involved in theater. It was clear that this was where my path lay.”

Harvey Lichtenstein. Photo: Catherine Noren
A door to Brooklyn opened when Seth Faison, then BAM board chair, contacted Harvey based on his achievements at NYCB. Faison was also intrigued with his dance, fundraising, and marketing background. Lichtenstein recounts how he decided to take the job:

“But when I spoke to Morton Baum, who was chairman of both the City Opera and the City Ballet companies, I told him that I was being offered this job and I was prepared to accept it, and he said to me—he said two things. He said, “First of all,” he said, “you know, Harvey, those of us who have been involved in the cultural life of the city”—which he had been; he and Neubold Morris had founded City Center, and they were deeply involved in the cultural life of the city. And he said, “We have been looking at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for years, and really have come to the conclusion that nothing can be done there. It’s a lost cause. It’s finished.” And I said, “Well, I mean, you know a lot more about it than I do, and that may indeed be true, but nobody else is offering me a theater to run, and I really would like to give it a try.”

—Sharon Lehner and Susan Yung

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