"Anybody dancin' today?" the young man asked as he strode through the lobby, heading straight for the back room that serves as both studio and performing space for Dance Place. Wearing jeans, T-shirt and a slouch hat, he didn't look like an aficionado of the avant-garde, but he knew what he liked and asked for it simply: "I want to see some dancing."
It was late afternoon and he was out of luck. Evening classes wouldn't begin for a couple of hours. But Carla Perlo, executive/artistic director of Dance Place, hates to turn away a fan. After exchanging names and shaking hands, Perlo invited the man to come back later and gave him a brochure detailing Dance Place's class and performance schedule for this, its 10th-anniversary season. "A lot of people from the neighborhood come here," Perlo said later. "Some are just curious, but some are serious, and a lot come back."
The neighborhood is Brookland, a quiet residential area in the shadow of Catholic University and a far cry from Adams-Morgan, where Dance Place was born 10 years ago. Unlike the bustling, noisy, intensely urban Adams-Morgan, Brookland is like a small town lying sleepily in the middle of the city, and the '50s atmosphere seems antithetical to an organization that correctly bills itself as "the foremost presenter of contemporary dance in Washington."
But here, across the street from houses with gardens and front porches where neighbors sit and chat on a humid summer afternoon, Dance Place is very much at home. Though the works performed there may be on the cutting edge of the art form, the atmosphere is friendly and informal. "This isn't about art for art's sake," Perlo said. "I don't want to intimidate people. I want Dance Place to be a place where people gather and communicate."
In its Adams-Morgan home, which Dance Place had to leave five years ago after its rent was quadrupled, Perlo says she used to know about 70 percent of her audience. "They all wore bluejeans; they were all artists." Now, the situation is reversed and "I probably know only 20 or 30 percent each night."
Perlo describes the current audience as "curious and heterogeneous." The group can include first-timers (Perlo calls for a show of hands before each performance), regulars, friends of the artists, other dancers or people "who look like conservative Republicans, and you wonder why they're there, and then they come up to you afterward and tell you how much they liked the show."
Dance Place presents a wide range of dance, both indigenous and imported, from contemporary to ethnic to performance art. Multicultural, cross-media art is all the rage these days, but Perlo has presented programs of African dance or salsa music from the beginning, and she's pleased that "finally we're in vogue on this one." Small and determined, with a dancer's muscles and a businesswoman's brain, Perlo knows exactly what she wants Dance Place to be, and one of her goals is to make dance available to as many people as possible.
"I want the performing arts to be part of a regular diet," she says firmly. To this end, there are performances at Dance Place virtually every weekend. When she's not presenting a local or out-of-town company herself, Perlo rents out the space, mostly to local groups without regular performing venues of their own. ("They pay us a fee, use our facilities and get 100 percent of the box office.")
Dance Place will present 90 nights of dancing this season, a staggering number for a small organization with limited resources, but it's not just a theater. It offers technique classes in modern and jazz dance, and sponsors workshops and seminars on issues of interest to the dance community. It has commissioned works from artists (16 works over the past three years). There are "inreach" programs where school kids come and watch performances, and outreach programs where performers go to the schools. There are special programs, like the Black History Month celebration each February and a festival of dance, music and folk art called Dance Africa 1991, scheduled for June.
Although it's a member of the National Performance Network and presents choreographers from around the country, Dance Place has always had a special commitment to Washington artists. Its season opener, beginning tomorrow night and running through Sunday, is called "The Washingtonians" and will present the work of 12 local companies spread out over three different programs.
In many, less definable ways, Dance Place has been indispensable to area dancers, giving them a place to teach when they're between studios, a place to rehearse, a place to exchange ideas with other artists. Assane Konte, director of the KanKouran West African Dance Company, taught African dance there for a year until he found his own space, and he probably speaks for most Washington dancers when he describes Dance Place as "the only thing happening here."
For some, Dance Place has provided a permanent home. Lesa McLaughlin, associate assistant director and program coordinator, laughed when asked if she could imagine Washington without Dance Place and explained that, because she'd been involved with the organization since her student days, "I really can't. It's been incredibly valuable to me as an artist." Now a dancer and choreographer with her own company, McLaughlin has literally grown up with Dance Place. She was part of its work-study program, in which students perform administrative or technical chores in exchange for technique classes, and did independent study in arts management there while attending George Mason University.
New York dancer and choreographer Deborah Riley is another of Dance Place's artist-workers. Riley had taught classes at Dance Place for several summers before signing on permanently five years ago. At Perlo's invitation, she came "to teach classes and answer the phone," and now handles press and marketing chores while continuing to teach, dance and choreograph. As an artist, Riley finds Dance Place an especially congenial space in which to work because "it's such an intimate space."
Even for those who don't become permanent members of the Dance Place "family," as McLaughlin called it, Dance Place can be a refuge. Washington dancer-choreographer Sharon Wyrrick, who taught there for a time, said that Dance Place "has been a tremendously large part of my survival, both creatively and logistically." She found use of Dance Place for rehearsals "lifesaving" during the time that her company, Full Circle, was in residence there. Although Wyrrick has come into contact with dance organizations while performing in such cities as Philadelphia and Atlanta, she says, "They're not really centers for dance, like Dance Place is. Carla has always wanted to make dance grow. It's not just a business for her."
It may not be "just a business," but the fact that Dance Place has survived to celebrate its 10th birthday is a testament to Perlo's business acumen and grit. Ten years ago, at the age of 28 when she took over Jan Van Dyke's Dance Project and turned it into Dance Place, it was "an unplanned baby. I had a great space to dance and a great teaching job, and I wanted to keep it." She had no impresarial dreams and no fund-raising experience, but now she has both -- and real estate as well. Being turned out of one studio because she couldn't afford the rent was enough; Dance Place now owns its building. ("I love real estate," Perlo said. "Buying a building is almost as much fun as making a dance.")
In 10 years, Dance Place has grown from a staff of volunteers and one full-time person (Perlo) to a staff of eight. There's heat and air conditioning now (the dance world measures its successes in small ways), and the 199-seat house is usually full. Dance Place is sensitive to starving artists (you can watch the show free if you usher), but also takes Visa and MasterCard. Though it still lives from grant to grant, there's a new sense of permanence, a feeling that Dance Place has come of age. "I know this season is going to make us," Perlo said, then rattled off her wish list for the next 10 years:
"Get out of debt, better technical and dressing room facilities, more community work, improve fees to artists." She's planned beyond that too. "I'm going to be right out there," she said, pointing to where the front porch would be if the building hadn't begun life as a welding shop, "in my rocker."