Norte Maar asks the North Country, "Shall we dance?"
Rouses Point has seen better days. Last fall the town's number-one employer, Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, announced its impending departure; the drug company employs a tenth of Rouses Point's 2350 residents and, until recently, ranked as the largest private employer in the North Country. In a recent New York Times article the mayor described the potential impact of the job losses as "Rouses Point's 9/11."
Even at the peak of summer boating season, the place has a "bridge to nowhere" feel about it. About a half-dozen empty storefronts, including the downtown Save-A-Lot supermarket, mar the charming but dated business district that runs for several blocks along the west side of Lake Champlain. Yellow caution tape encircles a corner lot piled high with burned wood and rubble -- the remains of the landmark Holland Hotel. Last weekend, a group of listless teens walked north past the abandoned stores, toward Canada.
No, wait -- they were headed for the Rouses Point Civic Center, a large, industrial-looking building next to the marina across the street from Chazy Hardware. A life-sized ballerina cutout on the side of the road indicated something other than hockey was happening that night. The occasion? The annual Fete de Danse -- a performing-arts spectacle produced by Rouses Point's own dedicated cultural ambassador.
It's Rouses Point, not Rouses Pointe, but don't tell Jason Andrew that. Since he moved north from New York City with his partner three years ago, the 34-year-old balletomane has made this border burg a more expressive -- and less depressing -- place. Under the organizational name of Norte Maar, he's produced summertime art exhibits, two-week student conservatories, film screenings and dance shows in collaboration with London-based choreographer Julia Gleich -- his former ballet teacher at the University of Utah, where he majored in studio art and art history.
The only place less likely to host world-class dance? The Plattsburgh Wal-Mart. Two nights after the Fete, Norte Maar's annual "Wal-Mart Ballet" played out in the big-box store's asphalt parking lot.
Growing up in rural Utah, Andrew only saw dance on television; he appears to be comfortable with the challenges of being openly gay in small-town America and bringing art to out-of-the-way places. He wisely chose the partnership of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers as the "theme" of this year's Fete and accompanying photo exhibit. On the surface, the subject is fun, straight and senior-friendly. But there may be a subtler message there about dancing through hard times.
Appropriately, Andrew has embraced as his primary performance venue the town hockey arena, complete with its rinkside ads, bleacher seating and a huge ventilation fan that roared for the two-and-a-half-hour duration of last Thursday's Fete. Andrew ruled out stage lights, preferring the utilitarian illumination of garish overhead fluorescents. Also in plain view, the "orchestra" was composed of three guys in street clothes gathered around an iBook.
But there were elegant touches, too. Andrew set up two stages where the ice would be and strung sails from the ceiling to create "wings" the dancers could hide behind. He also put together a 40-page playbill with an elegant, four-color cover. Amongst the ads for local lawyers and contractors are several from New York art galleries -- Andrew's former and current employers -- and a full blank page for "autographs." The Norte Maar graphics attest to Andrew's good eye.
Given the Fete's sporty setting, and Andrew's unique aesthetic, it's not surprising that a couple of local female vocalists started the show with an a cappella "God Bless America," then segued into Irving Berlin's "Let Yourself Go." The dance offerings, too, stayed unexpected and eclectic all the way through the evening, swinging from urban tap à la Savion Glover to classical ballet.
If the audience didn't know what to make of three females planted in big clay pots in a dance-theater piece by North Country choreographer Rachel Cohen, they could relate to the number that followed, with Andrew and Gleich as "A Couple of Swells." Before launching into their fun, loose-limbed duo, the pair cleaned up dirt, slapstick-style, which had spilled during the previous piece. Although their bodies couldn't be more different -- Andrew is tall and gorgeously muscular; Gleich is petite -- they work, and dance, well together.
Everyone did, in fact. All manner of green-clad girls represented Plattsburgh's Bernadette Short School of Irish Dancing -- but their routine was sandwiched between a demanding pas de deux performed by two of Gleich's three stand-out dancers, and a cool "Cubano Groove" from the New York-based tap foursome Andrew Nemr and CPD Plus. One tiara-topped toddler had "recital" written all over her, but it didn't matter. A few rinky-dink routines were perfectly acceptable under the circumstances. It was an all-ages, all-abilities show, and the kids in the audience were rapt.
In the end, every dancer in the performance converged on stage, and invited the entire audience of 500-plus to join them. Many people did, including an African-American guy who seemed to be challenging the Nemr group to a tap-off. A little Irish-dancing boy earned additional applause when he demonstrated his break-dancing moves. Like the rest of the performance, the community curtain call was a perfect pairing of big-city sensibilities and church-supper charm.
The mingling continued at the post-show reception organized by the Rouses Point Historical Society. Their volunteers were busily preparing food during the dancing and, by the end, had set out platters under a tent that extended from the building entrance to the parking lot. Accomplished and wannabe dancers munched on crustless tea sandwiches, shrimp cocktail and cookies alongside audience members, program advertisers, parents and volunteers. A French-speaking lawyer confirmed what people had been saying earlier in the bleachers: "It gets better every year."
The praise is a testament not just to Andrew's organizational skills but to his friendly flamboyance and impresario enthusiasm; although he's clearly behind the wheel at Norte Maar, it's no ego trip. The historical ladies love him. And he's a dancer magnet. Something about the way he asked the aforementioned tap-dancing troupe convinced them to board a northbound train -- along with one set of parents. Nine hours later, they arrived at the dilapidated station in Rouses Point and walked the rest of the way to Andrew's artsy abode.
Getting corporate sponsors on board has been tougher for Andrew and, despite his successes, he doesn't expect prospects to improve. Wyeth bought the inside cover of the 2006 playbill, but won't be contributing after 2008. In-kind donations, too, are stagnant. Andrew relies on area families to host dancers during the two-week residency and subsequent show. No hotel or restaurant has come forward to lighten the load.
Like the area he now calls home, Andrew is also dealing with his own financial insecurity. He's putting his partner Norman Jabaut through nursing school, and their house on Pratt Street needs a new roof. To pay the bills, Andrew has gone back to his job as a gallery researcher in New York City; he rents a room in Manhattan and returns every six weeks to Rouses Point.
Will there be another Fete in 2007? Post-show, Andrew isn't making any promises. "We just don't know where we'll be," he says. "We love the comfort of the city; we love going to the gay village. But I like knowing I can get on a train and be right here" -- that is, a modest house off the main drag that last week was still adorned with Fred and Ginger photos.
Andrew wants it both ways, and that's been the goal of Norte Maar from the start. "I like ruralness, but also the idea of having access to cultural events," he says. No doubt the North Country has benefited from his graceful but improbable balancing act.