On one of his first days as the new executive artistic director of Dance Place, Christopher K. Morgan is hearing about the stress that can overwhelm a dedicated staff strung out on overtime.
It’s an issue common to nonprofits. Morgan gets it: As a choreographer trying to keep his own dance company afloat for the past several years, he knows the strain of too much work and too few bodies to do it. At a morning staff meeting at the dance studio and performance venue in Brookland, Dance Place Financial Director Emily Crews looks at Morgan closely as she suggests ways to ward it off.
How does he feel about monitoring time sheets for evidence of employee burnout?
“You can totally read it in someone’s energy,” Morgan says, and everyone in the room nods, because intuitive dance folks have their own ways of checking in with one another, and it’s not through paperwork.
Morgan, 42, is tall and slender with a clean-shaven head and a round, boyish face that bears an expression of perpetual delight. He seems buoyantly at ease while navigating his tricky new territory. He was hired to take over from two beloved, dynamic women — co-directors Carla Perlo and Deborah Riley — who built Dance Place from the ground up. (Perlo founded it in 1980.) They will retire at the end of this month, but until then they’re quietly helping Morgan mountaineer his learning curve.
Given what he has to absorb about Dance Place’s 37-year history as the heart of the area’s contemporary dance scene, with after-school programs, summer camps, daily classes and weekend performances by local, national and international troupes, Morgan doesn’t have big changes in mind. He says he embraces Dance Place’s core values of “welcome, respect and inclusivity” and is committed “to continuing the really diverse array of programming.”
But he does have one important new goal. He knows what fellow dance artists need most, and he’s keen to provide it. It’s gloriously simple but a bear to find: open space, big enough to move around in.
A choreographer can’t create and rehearse a dance around a kitchen table or in a conference room or vacant office. She needs a dance studio, which is expensive to rent and often booked with Zumba classes until late at night. In a government city with hardly any industry — meaning no empty warehouses to be reclaimed by artists — the lack of creative space is a crushing problem for the dance community.
So in his first weeks at Dance Place, Morgan is zeroing in on how to make his studios available to local choreographers. He’d like to develop “space grants.”
In essence, he wants to re-create the conditions that led to his own success.
“I was so welcomed” in Washington, he says over a late lunch after the meetings finally ceased for the day. “I had the gift of space and time. What I’ve been able to accomplish would not have been possible without that support.”
Morgan is talking about the help he got to flourish as a choreographer after his rather late start in concert dance. The son of two ex-Marines and native Hawaiians, Morgan grew up learning Polynesian dances as a child in Costa Mesa, Calif. He fell in love with contemporary dance while at the University of California at Irvine. He started moonlighting with a San Diego dance company, and they offered him a job. He dropped out of school to take it.
But first, he had to sell his radical new plan to his dad, a barber. Wait — is that the reason for the hyper-short hair? Morgan laughs and runs a hand over his head.
“It could be a little subliminal,” he says, grinning.
In 1998, Morgan moved to Washington to join Liz Lerman Dance Exchange. Two years later, he left for New York, where he danced with the veteran experimentalist David Gordon. He also met his husband there, fellow dancer Kyle Lang, who’s now an opera director.
The couple live in North Bethesda, after weathering a long-distance relationship when Morgan returned to Washington as the resident choreographer of the now-defunct CityDance Ensemble. That was when he blossomed as an artist, he says. He had studios, dancers and all the resources he needed to create. It was so heavenly that in 2011, he mustered the courage to start his own troupe, Christopher K. Morgan & Artists. He’ll still run it while in the new job; he has a standing rehearsal built into his schedule, and his company class on Mondays will be open to the public.
For the past 12 years, Morgan has also directed the Dance Omi International Dance Collective, a summer choreographers’ residency in Ghent, N.Y. But heading a year-round institution like Dance Place, with its $1.8 million annual budget and more than 30 staff and interns, is a big step up. And that means meetings — lots of meetings.
On this recent rainy day, morning meetings stretch into the afternoon. So many decisions! Such as: Which app to buy for ringing up T-shirts on a tablet, along with class fees and donations made in the lobby? A debate ensues. Morgan, wearing a gray button-down shirt, black jeans and an understated silver necklace, listens intently and says nothing. When folks start repeating themselves, he sums up the options and double-checks: “Did I miss anyone who has a real vested interest in how credit-card payments are collected here?”
After a slew of other matters, he turns to space grants. Dance Place has always hosted resident companies. But Morgan wants to offer free studio space to individual artists, either for short-term projects, such as creating a work for the annual VelocityDC Dance Festival, or for a longer run, maybe even with office space thrown in so a choreographer could meet with potential donors somewhere classier than a Starbucks.
“This is just the idea stage,” he tells the staff, just before the meeting breaks up. “I’d love your feedback.”
Later, Morgan explains why he’s so keen on offering rehearsal space.
He wants to retain local artists, pointing to the longtime dancer-choreographers Gesel Mason and Helanius Wilkins as recent losses. (Both took jobs at the University of Colorado at Boulder.)
“I want to see how Dance Place can create enough opportunity for these artists to stay,” Morgan says, “by looking at the longer arc of a choreographer’s career and giving them an incentive to stay in the area.”
Space to create new work is needed even more nowadays since it’s rare for small, local companies to go on tour. This means they’re performing over and over for the same audience, which is more likely to get excited about premieres than last year’s repertoire.
“There’s so much pressure to keep generating new works,” Morgan laments. “It leads to artist fatigue.”
“He’s tapped into what’s important,” says Douglas Yeuell, executive director of the Atlas Performing Arts Center. He calls Morgan “a lovely human being, with a very pleasant, nice way about him” and a good pick.
“It’s great that someone from this community ascended to that position,” Yeuell says. “We’ve always been challenged in this region with retaining great dancers and great companies. It’s hard to attract dancers who can devote one hundred percent of their life to this art. They have to work all day, dance all night and get up tomorrow and do it again. . . . We should make it a better place for great art to happen.”
Part of Morgan’s appearance of calm is that he seems eminently thorough and organized. Maybe it’s his upbringing by Marines. At meetings, every agenda item is addressed. He takes notes. For years, he says, he has kept notebooks for every rehearsal, scribbling comments on spacing, on angles of the knee, on music.
“If I wish anything for him,” says Liz Lerman, the Dance Exchange founder and his former boss, “I wish for his growing comfort with chaos, because there’s chaos ahead.”
“The dance world is shifting, and it’s great to have new leadership,” she continues, speaking from her home in Arizona. (She teaches at Arizona State University.) Dance Place “is going to need to change. I hope he feels he has enough support to make changes and people won’t hang on too much to the past.”
Morgan agrees that changes are needed to keep up with audience interests and to continue building excitement about the art form. For one thing, he says, audiences crave more intimacy from live performance.
“People want more experiences that are not just sitting in a chair,” he says. “There’s a desire for something that’s more interactive and personal. The proscenium stage doesn’t really offer that. We’re seeing an uptick in immersive performances and using nontraditional spaces. It speaks to this desire for audiences and artists to connect differently.
“We, as a field, have work to do to keep up with that,” he continues. “Especially at Dance Place, presenting 40-plus works a year, and that space has to be reconfigured for each artist.” He speaks enthusiastically about the Minneapolis group BodyCartography Project, performing at Dance Place on Sept. 16-17. They’ve asked for seats to be removed so there’s greater floor space, because their shows will include audience participation and a dance party.
But Morgan, guided by his dancer’s intuition, swings back to the issue to which he relates most closely: local choreographers and their creative needs, and what he can give them.
“I’m so grateful to this community for what it’s done for me,” he says. “I want to make sure we’re doing that for other artists.”