Dance Place to undergo renovation in 2013

May 2, 2012

Dance Place, the well-regarded but rickety Northeast venue that’s been presenting dance shows since 1986, will close its theater in 2013 to undergo a $4 million, five-month renovation project.

It’s a significant expansion that should benefit Washington’s dance community in the long run but leaves many local companies without a place to perform next year. Deborah Riley, Dance Place’s co-director, says most area choreographers knew the announcement was coming. Details for the plans will be unveiled Friday afternoon at an event Dance Place is hosting to drum up community awareness — and additional cash.

“This has been in the works for years,” Riley said. “It’s a dream come true for us, a huge expansion.”

The building, a former garage on a quiet stretch of Eighth Street near Catholic University, will increase from 7,000 to almost 10,000 square feet. By bumping out the first floor and expanding the second story, Dance Place will gain restrooms, office space and a 20-by-20-foot studio, ideal for children’s classes and performer warm-ups. The total fundraising goal for the project is $5 million, including $1 million for programming and operating costs. Dance Place has raised $1.3 million thus far, including a major commitment from the Cafritz Foundation.

“We think this is going to make things better for everybody: students, audiences and performers,” Riley said, noting that metal folding chairs will be replaced with 160 theater seats, and dancers preparing to perform will finally have two heated dressing rooms instead of one chilly, cramped space lined with cinder blocks.


Rendering by Hickok Cole Architects of the upcoming renovations of Dance Place. (Hickok Cole Architects)

Erika Surma, a choreographer who staged a new work at Dance Place last month, can attest to the cramped backstage situation. “We had a band and 16 dancers back there,” she said. “There just wasn’t any room to move.”

Most dancers who have been performing in D.C. for more than a year or two have a Dance Place horror story.

“It takes whole choreography just to get from the back of the stage to the front of the house,” Riley said while giving a tour of the building this week, nearly tripping over lighting fixtures as she did. The theater has no wing space on either side, so the only way for dancers to enter and exit is by slinking along the walls behind curtains. It’s impossible to get up much speed, because no one can come leaping out onstage.

It’s a matter of logistics, not quality. Dance Place presents programs at least 45 weekends a year, nearly 100 nights. Most of the touring acts are smaller, up-and-coming troupes such as Nelja Yatkin’s NY2 Dance. Partnerships with other arts organizations allow Dance Place to co-commission artists such as Kyle Abraham, who will make his Washington debut this weekend. Most of the larger companies in the area, including Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Co. and Dance Exchange, have at least one run at the theater each season. But on the average weekend, you might see a local ethnic dance troupe, a coalition of choreographers or a new company just getting off the ground. It’s these groups that will be most affected by the closure.

Last month, e-mails began going out to some local dance companies, notifying them they will not be able to perform at Dance Place during the 2013-14 season. Surma, co-founder of Next Reflex Dance Collective, was one of those choreographers.

“It will be hard,” she said. “We just won’t have a local season next year.”

Riley says she’s planning a forum on the closure for local choreographers such as Surma and is encouraging them to think about performing in 2014 — and performing with breathing room.

The stage-right wall will be knocked out and shifted about 10 feet north, while the rear wall will be moved about the same distance to allow for the backstage expansion. Dance Place’s options were limited, though, by the property line to the south, which the current building already abuts, and the Metro tracks running directly behind the theater.

Riley is hoping her renovation project will last five months. Plans call for closing Dance Place in August 2013 and reopening in February 2014. Priority for remaining performance slots will have to go, however, to touring artists who are already under contract.

Vincent Thomas, artistic director of VTDance, is exploring other venues for his troupe and other displaced dancers. Thus far, the best alternative is Theatre Project, but that’s in Baltimore.

“I am so excited about the renovation,” Thomas said, “but I’m really concerned about what happens to dance during this time. It’s not just a selfish concern, either. I’m concerned about the field. Dance Place is the home for dance in the D.C. metro area; the place to see dance every weekend. It is a vital and vibrant landmark, and we’re lucky to have it.”

Ritzel is a freelance writer.

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