I like to watch people move. it's an admittedly strange passion, but one doesn't choose these things: At age 5, I was in a tutu inflicting my fairy-queen fantasies on the sorry lot who happened to be in the living room. I still do little twirly things in parking lots. My shrink assures me this is normal enough. (My fascination with dance, he says, lies somewhere between the soulful appeal of the theater and the kinesthetic rush of sports.) Normal or not, it's isolating. My otherwise open-minded friends beg for clemency when I try to get them to go to a performance. Somehow the mysteries of modern dance have become stranger and more off-putting than anything Andy Warhol or Andy Kaufman ever dreamed up, and yet for some of us, dance holds exactly the same kind of cheeky appeal.
For a dose of nutty charm and the odd glimpse of something raw and beautiful, dance lovers head downtown -- away from the magnificence of bam, the blockbuster programming at City Center, and the civilizing forces of the Joyce. Getting into these venues is easier than scoring tickets to the Angelika on a Friday night. And I assure you, there's more to the world of modern dance than that creepy fat guy with the laurel wreath who did interpretive Greek Revival numbers in The Big Lebowski.
Dixon Place at Vineyard 26
309 East 26th Street (212-532-1546); free-$12.
In 1986, Ellie Covan sacrificed her living room to art. Last summer, after a fourteen-year parade of half-dressed blondes, bearded ladies, fire-jugglers, and dancing sailors, the thrill finally wore off, and Covan moved her alternative-performance space to bigger and better digs. Fortunately, the nonjudgmental, homey informality remains. You can still grab something to drink and sink into an aging sofa. With five to eight performances and literary readings per week, Dixon Place functions as a petri dish for really, really new ideas. The half-baked and soon-to-be-great are cultivated with equal zeal; you never know what the spectacle before you might become. Who knew that those three guys pitching blue paint balloons at each other back in the late eighties would hit theatrical pay dirt as Blue Man Group? About half of the shows at Dixon move on to better-funded, stodgier territory, but that's beside the point. A celebration of raw (indeed, sometimes maddeningly so) imagination, Dixon Place is part old-world salon, part boho party.
512 West 19th Street (212-255-5793); $12-$15.
On June 15, 1971, video artists Steina and Woody Vasulka persuaded an intrepid group of artistic souls to brave the wilds of SoHo for a showing of experimental videos in a kitchen. Thus was born the Kitchen -- a performance space dedicated to technologically savvy, largely unclassifiable, interdisciplinary work. Thirty years later, it still retains the cool irreverence of its youth. Philip Glass, Bill T. Jones, Cindy Sherman, and Molissa Fenley got early breaks here. More recently, reliable talents like Sarah East Johnson, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, and Jonathan Burrows have stopped in.
131 East 10th Street (212-674-8194); free-$15.
In the twenties, Rector William Guthrie brought dance into St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery with a little number called Ritual of the Zuni Cornmaidens. The audience hated it -- the dancers had bare feet! Times change. For the past 25 years, Danspace Project has filled the luminous wood-and-stained-glass space with madcap, queer, and downright lovely dancing. Shows range from informal performances such as those showcased in the series Food for Thought, Draftwork, and the annual Improvisation Festival/NY to the polished presentations by old hands like Allyson Green. You may be mystified, but you won't be bored.
Movement Research at Judson Church
55 Washington Square South; 212-477-6635; free.
"Postmodern" dance gathered momentum in the sixties when the likes of John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, and Lucinda Childs trotted across the linoleum here. Movement Research carries on that tradition with its free Monday-night performances, which have become an informal salon for the downtown dance community. The series generally include thoughtful and refreshingly idiosyncratic work, be it Cunningham alum Foofwa d'Imobilite's virtuosic insanity or cowgirl Karen Sherman lassoing her girlfriend.
Dance Theater Workshop
219 West 19th Street (212-924-0077); $10-$20.
DTW is a great gig for dancers -- professional exposure, excellent facilities -- but it's not an easy one to get: Either director David White likes you or he doesn't. This force of ego has enabled him to build up a $3 million organization, and megalomaniac or not, the guy is often right. Deborah Jowitt, David Parsons, and Mark Morris are all indebted to him. Fresh Tracks, a biannual open-call audition for emerging choreographers, is a great way for hopefuls to get in the door. Some of the best dance in the city happens in this little black box; watch for Tere O'Connor's hilarious, gut-wrenching theatrics, as well as regulars like Keely Garfield and Jeanine Durning.
150 First Avenue (212-477-5288); $12-$20.
In 1979, MGM refurbished this nearly abandoned school for use in the movie Fame. The mad, driven dreaming celebrated in the film still reigns at P.S. 122. With a juicy budget and more than twenty years' practice at sniffing out the most promising experiments, P.S. 122 has become a sort of avant-garde finishing school. Shows here range from rough, freewheeling performances by emerging artists to the more polished antics of folks like John Leguizamo, Danny Hoch, David Neumann, Min Tanaka, and Ann Carlson. "They're people who are interested in what's new," says artistic director Mark Russell of his audience. "And that's pretty much all New Yorkers."