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The Perelman Performing Arts Center Is About to Open—A Beacon for Downtown New York

If you work or live near the World Trade Center, you are regularly confronted with impermanence. A pathway that has been blocked for months (years?) by plywood partitions and concrete barricades is suddenly accessible as a corridor for authorized vehicles and swarms of tourists. Corrugated tin walls, a shield for large-scale HVAC equipment resembling steam­punk vents, become a cheery Instagram backdrop when splashed with colorful murals. A biergarten sprouts on a concrete patio; a subway entrance improbably opens where the sidewalk seemed impermeable. Men in suits have been supplanted by nannies pushing strollers into the Wall Street–adjacent Whole Foods. This corner of New York grows in unpredictable ways.

On a crystalline spring day, I put on a hard hat and met PAC NYC’s chief development and marketing officer, Bob Pilon, at the busy worksite. With its closed-off staircases and two-by-fours laid down as rickety ramps, the space was still something of a labyrinth as we made our way up to the lobby level on the second floor. Dollies and sawhorse tables were scattered across the floor like abandoned children’s toys. Above, a series of wavy striplights carved out pathways in the ceiling (to direct the view of audiences, I would later be told); undulating felt material coated the walls (to muffle the sounds of the subway trains below).

“Over there is the lobby stage,” Pilon told me, gesturing toward a corner of the room where free programming—from spoken word to dance performances to weekend works geared toward families—will play for a few hours throughout the day to anyone who enters the space. “We’re all working to ensure that the word gets wide and far that all are welcome,” Khady Kamara, the center’s executive director, told me a few days later. (PAC NYC has worked hard to integrate with the local community—an early partnership with the Borough of Manhattan Community College, the center’s neighbor to the north, might place students not just in usher and bartender positions, but on the lobby stage as well.)

Two floors up we entered the theater level, where PAC NYC’s box-within-the-box design is most readily apparent, the marble exterior wall and the exterior of the theater box like two sides of a canyon. Above us, chandeliers descended from long downrods—when the center opens in mid-September they will shine through the marble panels from within, turning the entire structure into an illuminated cube. “There’s an analogy to a town square where there might be a clock tower or some orienting piece,” the interior design architect of the lobby and restaurant David Rockwell told me. “I think it’s going to be a glowing exclamation point.”

Marcus Samuelsson, who will open a restaurant at PAC NYC called Metropolis, which will celebrate the cuisine of all five boroughs of New York City, had cooked at Windows on the World on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center days before September 11. In the weeks that followed, Samuelsson helped prepare meals alongside other New York City chefs to feed the first responders. Rockwell, whose Rockwell Group has designed the interior spaces of PAC NYC—the “sequence that choreographs how the audience comes together before they see the show,” as he puts it—also lived downtown. He watched the second tower fall from the roof of his Union Square office building and later pushed his toddler son in a stroller through the chaos of Lower Manhattan. In the months that followed, Rockwell, who exudes a warm, avuncular energy, would become involved in what he calls “an urban barn-raising” to decorate an elementary school where children displaced from the shuttered PS 234, just a few blocks away from the towers, were sent. Asked to design a viewing platform for the destroyed site, he made it a condition of his work that it would be open to the public—and raised the money to ensure it.

The program, of course, will be central to that, and it is being designed by artistic director Bill Rauch, who formerly led the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The first new commission—and first world premiere—for the center, Watch Night, is a collaboration between the legendary dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones, poet Marc Bamuthi Joseph, composer Tamar-kali, and dramaturge Lauren Whitehead that draws upon spirituals, opera, and slam poetry. Next year, the center will host Huang Ruo and librettist David Henry Hwang’s opera An American Soldier; a comedy from the group behind Reservation Dogs, which spans 90 years in the life of a fictional Native American family; as well as a reimagined version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats set amid the Ballroom culture of the 1970s. And that’s just a sampling.



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