On my first visit to New York, a New Yorker said to me, “this is a hard city to live in. The rents are high, work is often busy and stressful but what makes it worthwhile is that you’re always coming across cool, quirky places you’d probably never find anywhere else.”
One of those idiosyncratic New York spaces was Natalie Agee’s Ruby Streak Trapeze Studio, formerly located in Bushwick, Brooklyn, off the Jefferson Street L Stop. It was a place that I’d come to rely on to practice and study fixed trapeze. Some of my experiences in the studio served as inspiration for my book, The Trapeze Diaries. Professional and amateur aerialists have trained with Agee preparing and crafting their performances, including a bi-annual aerial Winter Showcase usually held at the Bushwick Starr.
Before Agee began renting the Bushwick studio she was teaching all over the city through an acrobatic dance troupe called LAVA, which she helped found and has a studio in Prospect Heights. (They bought the building and opened the studio for classes in 2004.)Agee has a modern dance background but began training acrobatics and circus arts in 1996, after seeing Sarah East Johnson’s show “Girls and Volcanoes.” She left the Bessie and Obie Award-Winning LAVA in 2006, after performing, choreographing and teaching across the country with them for almost ten years. She also has a background in Pilates and injury prevention/re-conditioning that strongly informs her teaching methods in the circus arts. She’s received training from master teachers and performers at the Circus Center, Circus Oz, and Nimble Arts. She is a versatile performer on the hula-hoop, singing in stairwells, and Chinese pole circus tricks on lampposts.
At this time, Agee would often rent space by the hour and would strap trapezes and aerial equipment to her bike and go pedaling all around the city. After being hit by a car while biking to a class, Agee started to dream of her own studio space. Some friends were looking to share space at their artist-in-residence building on Jefferson Street and in 2002 they asked Agee to join them.
The neighborhood was very different from the up-and-coming arts friendly neighborhood it is now. It was desolate and scary and Agee was warned by an MTA attendant not to exit on Starr Street because you couldn’t see around the corner coming out of the subway.
In that studio, Agee built her own room, paying for the construction materials and doing the labor herself. She had already helped to build walls and put in windows at another studio in Williamsburg called The Trapeze Loft, and she called in “special expert” friends to help her with anything she didn’t know how to do. Students came from all over the city to take her class in Bushwick—from Midwood, Harlem, Red Hook, Crown Heights, Williamsburg, Park Slope, Bensonhurst and Carroll Gardens.
At the beginning of 2007, she moved to a bigger room within the studio with higher ceilings and natural light. She ordered new mats and was able to participate in community events via the Arts in Bushwick, hosting open studio performances with her students. The studio began to thrive. At Ruby Streak, Agee taught private and semi-private solo and doubles fixed trapeze lessons, as well as corde lisse, partner acrobatics, handstands, aerial conditioning, and composition.
Heather Hammond, of Helium Air Dance in Toronto, moved to New York and chose to teach at Agee’s studio. Hammond is a specialist in aerial/circus arts and modern dance and had collaborated extensively with High Strung Aerial Dance, and toured with Cirque Sublime. She is a graduate of the School of Toronto Dance Theater and trained at the Toronto School of Circus Arts. She taught private and semi-private classes in silks, straps, and lycra at the studio.
Agee kept her rates affordable saying, “If a person has the desire and commitment to do something, there are always many ways to make it happen. Studying and training at Ruby Streak are possibilities for anyone, no matter what their financial situation. I’ve also been working on creating alliances within the community with different neighborhood, feminist, and LBGTQ groups.”
In the fall of 2008 the leaseholder moved to California and the landlord did not extend an offer for Agee to stay. Agee was given a month’s notice. The search for a new studio began.
She needs high ceilings and a landlord that doesn’t mind trapeze rigging in the space. In an ideal world, she would also love to have a space that would not just be for lessons but for performance. She is not too particular about location. Her search has taken her all over Brooklyn but the terms of the lease have always been too shaky. Most affordable spaces are raw spaces that need a lot of work, but by the time the work has been done there is always the risk that the landlord might not renew the lease.
In the current economic climate, rents are dropping fast, however, Agee says her budget is dropping at the same rate. Many of her students have been affected by the crisis and are not planning to stay in New York City.
Currently Agee is getting by teaching in a temporary space in Bedford-Stuyvesant that will last for several months. She says that her community is helping keep her hopes for finding a studio alive and helping her out with everything from rigging to web design to finding a rental space. Testimonials on her website (www.natalieagee.com) rave about Agee’s patience, inspiration, dedication, and focus as a teacher and her importance to their development in sense of self and creativity.
In the March 2009 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Richard Florida wrote that Jane Jacobs once told him, “When a place gets boring, even the rich people leave.“Commenting on the current situation, he said: “with the hegemony of the investment bankers over, New York now stands a better chance of avoiding that sterile fate.” On the other hand, it remains a concern of local artists whether idiosyncratic spots like Natalie Agee’s Ruby Streak Trapeze Studio can continue to flourish as the economic crisis deepens.
Marie Carter is the editor of Word Jig: New Fiction from Scotland and author of forthcoming creative non-fiction book, The Trapeze Diaries (Hanging Loose Press, Spring 2008).