THE FIRST time I met Carla Perlo, she was taking out the trash.
That was more than 20 years ago. Perlo was at the helm of the nascent but burgeoning modern dance studio/theater where she did everything from jury-rigging the cranky plumbing, to teaching a half-dozen adult professional classes a week, to writing grant proposals, booking companies, choreographing, balancing the books and soliciting grants that kept the lights on and the phone connected. Back then, Dance Place was a fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants organization but also one of very few places in the District to see cutting-edge contemporary dance and performance art.
Audiences had -- mostly -- no qualms about walking down an Adams Morgan alley and sitting on old sofa pillows on the floor. They were just hungry for a place to see dance.
Much has changed in the 25 years since Perlo founded Dance Place with percussionist Steve Bloom. By 1986, Dance Place was among the first dance organizations to purchase its own building: a one-time welding warehouse hard by the railroad tracks in a semi-residential neighborhood in Brookland. But Perlo still takes out the trash, answers the phone, negotiates with the electrician and books a 42-week season of modern, contemporary and world dance.
Andrea Snyder has been watching Dance Place performances since the early '80s, when it was above a Ben Franklin five-and-dime on 18th Street NW. "Dance Place stands amongst the very few organizations that have had an earth-changing relationship with the dance field, both locally and nationally," says Snyder, the executive director of Dance/USA, the field's national advocacy group. Snyder calls Perlo's organization the "go-to place for emerging small and mid-size companies and artists of almost every diverse style."
This weekend, as Perlo and co-director Deborah Riley oversee the opening of Dance Place's 25th anniversary season, the organization continues to offer its stage to some of the best next-generation companies and choreographers in the country. In years past the roster featured such then-unknown artists as Eiko & Koma, Bebe Miller, David Parsons and Joe Goode. These choreographers and others, with an assist from Dance Place, have arrived; today these once-fledglings fill theaters more than twice the size of Dance Place's 175 seats.
What has been Perlo's secret -- aside from working indefatigably hard to keep the organization solvent and growing?
"Partnerships have always been the heart of the organization," Perlo noted. "We have had strong leadership partners, strong artistic dance partners, strong musical partners and a huge number of artists that we considered our partners." Many artists long affiliated with the organization will be on hand for Saturday's gala benefit and concert, "Partners Project: Together and Dancing." An additional performance on Sunday has been added to benefit Hurricane Katrina victims.
Rising local stars on this weekend's roster include Nejla Yatkin, joined by her husband and creative partner Christian Davenport in "Blood Memories," with Davenport's poetry, music by Nina Simone and Yatkin's luscious yet powerful dancing. Other artists to watch will be Sharon Mansur and Daniel Burkholder, as well as Gesel Mason and Helanius J. Wilkins. Two choreographers who most often work separately, Mason and Wilkins have crafted a duet for this program, "What or Not." Sharon Witting, along with Andrea Burkholder, will float from the rigging in "Caravan," an enticing aerial work for the pair who dangle from yards of Chinese silks.
Perlo has seen the Washington dance community mature and expand in the past 25 years, from an insular group of struggling artists to dozens of self-sustaining local companies and dancers that have consciously decided to make this region their home. It hasn't gotten any easier as Perlo faces increased competition from a growing number of dance venues around the Beltway, including Germantown's BlackRock Center, Arlington's Gunston and College Park's Clarice Smith Center. But greater opportunities and more locations bode well for expanding the dance audience. Perlo says that after 25 years as a working artist in the business, "I don't think I'm working any harder, I'm just working smarter."
Even so, it still takes grunt work. The last time I saw Perlo, she was wiping smudges from the Dance Place studio mirrors before her advanced modern dance class.
DANCE PLACE 25TH ANNIVERSARY BENEFIT PARTY AND CONCERT -- Saturday and Sunday at 7. Sunday's performance is a pay-what-you-can benefit for Hurricane Katrina victims. Dance Place, 3225 Eighth St. NE. 202-269-1600.