Aviva Davidson, center, alongside Emilio “Buddha Stretch” Austin Jr.
Aviva Davidson, center, alongside Emilio “Buddha Stretch” Austin Jr.

Director of Dancing in the Streets announces retirement after 17 years

During her long career as a program and events organizer, Aviva Davidson loved working with people who were unlike her. Most, she said, were either black, Latino or simply “out-of-the-box.”

The thing that surprised her the most, however, was how much she fell in love with hip-hop culture and the communities that perform and follow it.

Davidson announced her retirement after 17 years as executive director of Longwood-based arts organization Dancing in the Streets. The group has been a mainstay in the local arts scene, regularly partnering with other arts and community organizations such as the Casita Maria Center for Arts & Education, SoBRO and The Ghetto Film School.

Born in Manhattan and raised in Israel, Davidson says there are traces of her performing arts training in all of her projects.

“My whole life was really around theatre. When you work with people who are trained, it’s different, they care about style,” said Davidson, who studied performing arts at UCLA before coming back to New York. She went on to attain a Master’s degree in arts administration at Columbia before moving briefly to Wisconsin as a performing arts curator, “merging edgy [people] with the most conventional [people]”.

“When you work with regular people, you have to look for the essence of what’s in the play, dramatic exercises, that’s what really touches people’s hearts and minds and souls,” she said.

Dancing in the Streets, which has earned a reputation for putting on adventurous performances in unexpected places across the city, was established in 1984. The group’s founder, Elise Bernhardt, credits Davidson with providing the organization with a needed lift.

“I had gotten it to adolescence and she got it to adulthood,” said Bernhardt said, adding that her original goal was to create a organization that would highlight the use of architecture and space as a context in which to focus on dance, but that Davidson took the group’s name more literally.

“To me it was more of a metaphor,” she said. “However, Aviva investigated and explored a whole level of an art form that wasn’t there.”

When Dancing in the Streets struggled to pay its rent in Brooklyn in 2011, Davidson made the bold decision to move its headquarters to Simpson St.

“This wasn’t just a financial opportunity, but the Bronx was rich,” said Davidson, stressing the group’s motto: “It’s a triangle; it has to have art, place and community.”

“A lot of our shows were in different places. Each time we had to start a new relationship with a new community,” she said, adding that the group’s collaboration with Casita Maria gave her the confidence to make the move. “The idea of developing in one community was exciting, specifically the South Bronx.”

Coming to an area with a culture so different than her own was a challenge Davidson welcomed.

“I’ve always worked with communities of people who are not like me. It felt like I could breathe, it was something about that close-knitedness that nurtured me. It’s as if I’m drinking from two fountains.”

One of the group’s primary objectives is to make the arts accessible for those who would ordinarily pass up the chance to attend a performance.

“She took a non-profit which was struggling and turned it around,” said Michael Brady, director of special projects at SoBRO, who has worked closely with Davidson. “She has made the organization more efficient, and engages community residents building an ideal model for an arts organization.”

Since moving to the South Bronx, Dancing in the Streets has partnered with Joanna Haigood on two large productions: Bessie Award-winning Paseo, which highlighted the history of Latin music, and The Bronx Revolution and Birth of Hip Hop, with pioneers of the genre such as Kwikstep and Melle Mel.

The organization says it will continue to push the envelope on integrating the arts into everyday life in New York City—a tradition the group’s leaders say Davidson started. In 2014, the group collaborated with the city and with the Mark Morris Dance Group to create It’s Showtime NYC, an initiative to make dance performances on the city’s subways legal, an endeavor Davidson says will be her new baby.

Simon Dove, an independent educator and co-curator of Crossing the Line, the annual trans-disciplinary fall festival in New York City, will take over as Dancing in the Streets’ executive director in 2016. The group’s board president, Carl Stoll, called Dove “a social activist, arts impresario and innovator” who has “an impressive track record of building deep, meaningful connections among artists, communities and a broad public.”

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