The dancers have a nickname for Carla Perlo, who built Dance Place 37 years ago and turned a hidden crevice into a wellspring for the arts. It’s a feat she did twice, after ballooning rent forced her to move her dance center out of a loft in Adams Morgan and into a garage in Brookland.
Through it all — dancing, teaching, booking artists, nurturing local creatives, growing audiences — through all this, Perlo has worked methodically and quietly.
So, in affectionate homage to her strategic, soft-spoken, “Godfather”-like empire-building, Perlo has been dubbed the Al Pacino of dance.
“She’s quiet, but she’s powerful,” says Rennie Harris, director of Puremovement, a Philadelphia-based hip-hop company. He and his dancers gave her the nickname. His troupe has traveled the world, but 25 years ago, when Harris was in his 20s and trying to make the case that hip-hop was an art form, suitable for the stage, Perlo was one of the first to give him a chance. She booked him in her theater, no strings attached.
“She’s not a puppeteer,” Harris says. “She doesn’t say a lot, but what she says is enough.”
Perlo puts it bluntly: “I do not control artists. I give them carte blanche,” she says over a BLT at Brookland Pint, a stylish eatery that was unimaginable in that part of town in 1986, when Perlo first stepped inside a vacant welding workshop at 3225 Eighth Street NE. She saw high ceilings, sunlight, no support pillars: the perfect dance space. She envisioned it full of artists, art lovers, children. She bought it and turned it into Dance Place, a dance training and performance center, sharing the street with junkyards and a car repair joint.
Now the street buzzes with new businesses, and Dance Place, after its $4 million renovation in 2014, has changed, too. The biggest change happens soon: At the end of August, Perlo, 65, will retire, along with Deborah Riley, 67, who has been co-director for 17 years. They’ll turn Dance Place over to Christopher K. Morgan, a local dancer and choreographer, and one of the many artists they’ve nurtured. Both women will continue to teach dance there. Perlo will also keep up the gardening classes she launched for the neighborhood children. Just as Riley was honored in April, Perlo will be feted with a gala performance, “Celebrate Carla,” on Saturday.
As for that miracle-working, essential Perlo touch, which created the area’s busiest dance series and laid a key foundation for a nationwide dance network — where will that go? Petite and broad-shouldered, her graying hair combed into a long braid, Perlo radiates directness and no-nonsense energy. She doesn’t look ready to stop.
Indeed, she wants to consult with other arts groups — and here’s a fantastic opportunity. Presenters, community groups and arts hubs seeking guidance ought to line up at her door, for Carla Perlo has made an art of knowing when to lead, and when to get out of the way.
Here’s a primer on Perlo’s principles.
1. Buy your building.
Don’t risk a catastrophic rent increase. That’s what happened to Perlo, five years after establishing Dance Place on 18th Street NW in Adams Morgan. She was given a month to move out before costs quadrupled. Perlo’s Brookland purchase made Dance Place one of the first dance centers in the country to own its space. She helped others buy, too — including Alvin Mayes, when he was a member of her dance company. He let slip a little home-owning envy one day in rehearsal.
“Next thing I know, Carla and I were out shopping for homes,” says Mayes, who is director of undergraduate studies at the University of Maryland’s theater and dance department. “And in a day, I’d purchased one. I never thought it was a possibility. And now it’s completely paid for.” Perlo, he says, “has an incredible knack for finding out what people’s needs are, and then finding a way to resolve them.”
2. Surround yourself with the best.
Those are words from her father, a man Perlo quotes often. Hyman Perlo was, by all accounts, a warm, generous man with great reserves of strength. The dress shop he owned burned down in the 1968 riots, but his optimism survived. From him, Perlo says, she gained her eye for quality and her open mind.
“I wasn’t threatened by anybody,” she says. “I wanted to bring in the best, because I wanted the Washington community to have access to these great artists that weren’t going to go to the Kennedy Center.” Over the years, she’s presented a star-studded list of experimental artists, including Garth Fagan (before he became the Tony-winning choreographer of Broadway’s “The Lion King”), Elizabeth Streb, Donald Byrd, Joe Goode and Bebe Miller.
3. Make room for everyone.
Before Perlo launched Dance Place, “there were huge divisions in the dance community,” Mayes says. Choreographers such as Liz Lerman and her influential Dance Exchange had ardent followers, but many of the company directors and teachers didn’t interact with one another. There was no central crossroads, until Perlo came along.
“Carla invited all of them to the table,” Mayes says. “She made space for each of them to teach and perform.” And in taking classes together, choreographers found dancers with whom to work. Students found performing opportunities. And Perlo found artists to fill out her year-round performance calendar.
With her own troupe, Perlo/Bloom and Company, “I wasn’t in any exact genre,” Perlo says. “I thought all of them were interesting. So it was natural for me to want everyone included, especially if we were going to have a performance series.”
4. “Everyone” means children, too.
Perlo runs after-school programs and summer camps. She brings in school groups to watch dance in her theater. And at 4:30 every afternoon, when kids start crowding the Dance Place courtyard, she opens it up for basketball.
“We wouldn’t have been as accepted in the neighborhood if we didn’t welcome the children,” she says. It’s also familiar ground. Perlo got her start in dance in Cincinnati, as a new college graduate running an inner-city dance program for kids in the projects. One of her students was a bright-eyed 10-year-old named Sylvia. A few years later, Sylvia found her way to Dance Place. Now she’s Sylvia Soumah, West African dance specialist and longtime director of the Coyaba Dance Theater, one of Dance Place’s resident companies.
“So when people ask me, ‘Gee, Carla, do ya really think that the arts can impact kids’ lives?,’ ” Perlo smiles, and lets the answer go unspoken.
5. Know when to butt out/in.
Perlo believes in letting artists do their art, unencumbered by advice or suggestion. But she’s keen to support new work, even when it’s just a gleam in the artist’s eye. Not long ago, she asked Rennie Harris what he was working on.
“I told her a few things,” he says. “And she said, ‘Oh, I like that.’ ” Harris was surprised. “I hadn’t developed it, hadn’t had any rehearsal. But she said, ‘Let’s try to get some other presenters on board.’ And she did.” Thus arose his newest work, “Lifted,” inspired by house music. His group, Puremovement, performed it in April at Dance Place, and is now on tour with it. “We’ll get about 15 weeks of work out of this piece,” he says.
6. Only connect.
Perlo invited Bebe Miller and her dancers to Dance Place in 1985. It was Miller’s first tour outside New York. A few years later, the wider dance world got wind of her talent, and she became one of the most highly regarded names in modern dance, acclaimed as an important and provocative choreographer. Miller is grateful not only for Perlo’s backing, but also for how she put dance groups out on the road — a critical step in building the art form.
“She and Dance Place have been parts of the emergence of this contemporary field of dance in our time,” Miller says. “She saw dance as a touring event, so it’s not just in regional pockets, but there’s a network of spaces. . . . She saw the potential of this national connection. That’s really her gift. Carla was very much a part of building this field.”
7. What are you waiting for?
Perlo starts her day by reading her horoscope. She likes it because the message is invariably “Get out there and do something!” That’s always been her philosophy, and it’s not going to change, even without a dance center to run. “How many people do you know who are on antidepressants?” she asks. “I’m not, thank God.” No, you can’t imagine a depressed Perlo. There’s that quiet but unshakable optimism, a belief in art as part of a daily diet.
“My medicine,” Perlo says with a smile, “is dance, gardening and a creative lifestyle.”
Celebrate Carla, a gala/fundraiser, will be June 24 at 7 p.m. at Dance Place, 3225 Eighth St. NE. Tickets: $150. Call 202-269-1601.