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House Of Yes Performers At Home: How Artists Persevere

There's a place on the normally bustling Wyckoff Avenue in Bushwick, Brooklyn, that stands out in the middle of the chattering of pedestrians and regular city life.

Part performance venue, dance club and creative space, the House of Yes is many things. It's an eccentric burlesque circus; a cultural fabric of Brooklyn nightlife. For more than a decade, the House of Yes has been nurturing the artistic community in New York City with events ranging from costume creation to circus skill classes.

José A. Alvarado Jr., a photographer in New York City, started a personal project in the fall of 2019 to document the unique culture of the venue and the abilities of its dedicated performers.

He was drawn to the artists' personal histories and their relationship to the venue. Some performers started working in the House of Yes kitchen and made it to the stage with their dance talents. Some resident artists had side jobs.

And then 2020 happened. The coronavirus took over the city and the venue was forced to close its doors. All of the performers and artists were forced into isolation, suddenly living without their income from live performances.

Alvarado and I worked around the idea of how to continue the project through the pandemic. We wanted to know how the lives and livelihoods of these artists and performers have been affected. He wanted to photograph them in a way that could celebrate their craft as well as keep them safe while shooting.

The idea came about for artists to photograph themselves with their cellphones. Alvarado then photographed their images displayed on his phone.

The hands-off approach gave him anxiety.

"It required that I step away and allow the artist to share how they want the world to see them," he says. "This is an incredibly rewarding way to create a portrait, but I would stay up some nights fearing that they would create a scene at their homes that aren't an exact interpretation of what it is they do.

"Luckily the artists were open to giving me as much time to photograph and allowed for the natural moments to come through as we spoke and photographed via cellphone," Alvarado says. "The process, in the end, was still the same for me, when working on projects like this I always tell myself that it is a marathon and not a sprint. The genuine moments will come through the longer you stay."

The resulting still-lives represent the work of each artist. We see intimate yet foreign tableaux vivants that convey closeness while still being far removed from one another.

It's a representation of "distanced closeness": How we can use technology to cope with disaster and still feel together even if we're not.

A majority of Alvarado's work is inspired by stories about individuals navigating the hurdles of everyday life, or how current events influence subcultures. For him, the House of Yes in all of its nuances — circus, shock performances, an ambiance of Studio 54 — presented the perfect base to examine how artists pursue their passions despite the social and economic hurdles.

Working in a pandemic, Alvarado has learned to navigate visual storytelling in a whole new way. He's learned from the artists. "They showed me the beauty in reinvention and they shared how having tenacity and originality can lead you towards greener pastures," he says.

The House of Yes persevered after a fire and a rent increase forced them from two previous locations in years past. This time, "We will reopen, we just have no idea when," the organization says. For now, the House of Yes is busy online, putting on virtual classes several days a week.

Most artists "took the pandemic by the ears," Alvarado says, as they molded their personal and professional situation to keep their artistic career alive while still trying to pay bills.

"For some performers the acquiring of this new free time allowed them to calibrate and refocus their goals, such as pursuing holistic medicine and focusing all their energies toward mutual aid in their communities and activism work in the wake of the protests against police brutality," he says.

The performers believe "the need for art is ever more important and vital now than it ever was. Art is the bridge we as humans cross to understand each other, to learn, and their determination to continue on this journey further drilled into me that I too can't take a break during this time because others depend on my art as well."

José A. Alvarado Jr. is a Puerto Rican photographer dedicated to documenting class inequality, civic engagement and contemporary issues in Puerto Rico and New York City.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.