An arts center opens at Ground Zero with stars, onstage and off

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An arts center opens at Ground Zero with stars, onstage and off
A view of the new Perelman Performing Arts Center at night, when the white marble building turns amber and becomes a beacon, in Lower Manhattan in New York on Sept. 1, 2023. The Perelman Performing Arts Center, a glamorous $500 million project, may yet turn the World Trade Center into a neighborhood, a New York Times critic writes. (George Etheredge/The New York Times)

NEW YORK, NY.- Cynthia Erivo sang “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Ballerina Tiler Peck moonwalked, on pointe shoes, to a rap by Tariq Trotter. Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo performed both parts of a duet from Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” twirling from stage left to stage right with each character change.

After more than two decades of imagining, planning, debating, fundraising, losing hope and fundraising some more, the Perelman Performing Arts Center opened Thursday night at the World Trade Center site, which buzzed with politicians, celebrities and benefactors whose contributions allowed the once-foundering project to be realized.

The first person to step onstage for a performance at the long-awaited arts institution was Amanda Gorman, a 25-year-old poet whose civic-minded work has become a centerpiece of major events since she recited a poem at President Joe Biden’s inauguration.

“We ignite not in the light but in lack thereof,” Gorman said, in a poem that reflected not just on the 9/11 attacks but also to the devastation of the coronavirus pandemic. “For it is in loss that we learn to truly love. In this chaos we have discovered clarity. In our suffering we have found solidarity.”

New York’s civic leaders and arts administrators have spoken for two decades of the importance of building a haven of artistic creation on a site that had become synonymous with tragedy and death.

“Here, on this very site, where so much loss and devastation took place,” said Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire former mayor who is chair of the institution’s board, “the arts will bring a special sense of hope for the future.”

Various ideas for the space percolated and fizzled for years, until Ronald O. Perelman, a billionaire businessperson whom the building is named after, jump-started the project with a $75 million donation. It was Bloomberg who brought the project to fruition, contributing the largest portion of money: $130 million.

Although it is Perelman’s name on the building, Bloomberg was at the center of much attention Thursday night, posing with benefactors and celebrities such as Michael Douglas and Liev Schreiber on a red carpet at a cocktail hour before the performance, where guests sipped Champagne and ate miniature cheeseburgers and pigs in blankets.

Onstage, Perelman acknowledged Bloomberg’s outsized role, as well as the unexpectedly steep cost to construct the building, designed by architect Joshua Ramus.

“When this project started, the concept was about a $150 to $200 million cost; it ended up at about $500 million,” Perelman said. “And the shortfall was filled in almost entirely by our mayor.”

Ensconced in the marble-clad, cube-shaped building, which took on an amber glow with the setting sun, the gala’s main event featured a program that included Beninese singer Angélique Kidjo alongside Native American dancer Supaman; Tori Kelly singing with elementary school students from Staten Island, a brief stand-up set from Whoopi Goldberg, and to close out the night, several songs from James Taylor.

Many of the presenters were native New Yorkers who touched on their childhoods growing up in the city, including John Leguizamo, actress Rosario Dawson and Broadway performer Javier Muñoz. (The event had a couple of opening night technical glitches: Gorman’s poem disappeared briefly from her teleprompter, and Taylor commented that his earpiece was not working.)

The performing arts center opens to the public Tuesday with a concert featuring performers from around the country and world who all consider New York their “artistic home,” including multidisciplinary performer Laurie Anderson and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Raven Chacon.

“There has been a lot of dedication and resilience in making sure this project was seen all the way through,” said Khady Kamara, the center’s executive director.

Bill Rauch, the center’s artistic director, said that because the people who died in the 9/11 attacks were from more than 90 countries, he views the institution as having a responsibility to be not just a local cultural center for lower Manhattan but an international one.

“The goal isn’t just to have an audience,” said Muñoz, “but to have an audience that looks like New York.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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