Anyone with a connection to Dance Place, the dynamic school and performance space that grew out of a welding shop in Brookland 32 years ago, and which helped catalyze that neighborhood’s transformation, knows what a tough task it will be to fill the shoes of retiring co-directors Carla Perlo and Deborah Riley.
The institution announced Wednesday that it had appointed a new executive artistic director willing to try: Christopher K. Morgan, 41, a Bethesda-based choreographer, teacher and company director. He starts Sept. 1, after a month of mentorship by Perlo and Riley.
In choosing Morgan, Dance Place looked beyond his relatively limited experience overseeing a school or presenting performances, in favor of his broad background as an artist and arts leader, and his commitment to continuing Dance Place’s community outreach.
Morgan acknowledged in an interview Tuesday that heading Dance Place will be a big change from running his contemporary-dance company, Christopher K. Morgan & Artists , with six dancers and a $232,000 budget. Dance Place has a $1.8 million annual budget and more than 30 staff and interns for its year-round performance series, classes six days a week, after-school programs and summer camps.
“I admit, when I read the job description, it was a little intimidating in many ways,” Morgan said with a laugh. But he was encouraged to apply by an influential force.
“Like many things in the metro D.C. dance community,” he said, “it started with Carla. And Carla is a woman who can’t be ignored.”
Perlo, who founded Dance Place in 1980 in Adams Morgan and moved it to Brookland in 1985, spoke to Morgan last December about the job. Morgan “has excelled at everything he’s done,” she said Tuesday. “He’s gone from one interesting position to another.”
For 12 years, Morgan has directed Dance Omi International Dance Collective, an annual summer choreographers’ residency in Ghent, N.Y. He also is an artist in residence at the University of Maryland, where he teaches.
The son of native Hawaiians, Morgan performed Polynesian dances growing up in Orange County, Calif., and taught dance in a program for at-risk youth. He joined Washington’s Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in 1998. A stint in New York with the veteran experimentalist David Gordon followed; in 2007, Morgan returned to the District as the resident choreographer of the now-defunct CityDance Ensemble, leaving in 2011 to form his troupe.
“We picked Christopher because his understanding of Dance Place and the community in which it sits was probably the strongest of any of the candidates,” said board member Denise Rollins, who chaired the search committee.
“Probably the tipping point was how he talked about the young people,” Perlo said. “They’re here every day. We’re not in some Northwest location. We’re in a neighborhood, where there’s a lot of children. Dance Place would not have become welcome if we hadn’t embraced the children here.”
Although Dance Place continues to face funding challenges, Perlo emphasized that it is in a healthy state because she and Riley, co-director since 1999, have been planning their retirement for the past two years, and in 2014 they completed a $4 million renovation. Morgan “is inheriting a marvelous facility and a marvelous staff and a much better financial position than we’ve been in a long time,” Perlo said.
Perlo and Riley have already planned the 2017-18 performance season, which happens to include Morgan’s company, as well as San Francisco’s Sean Dorsey and Roy Assaf of Israel, among a full year’s worth of other artists. Morgan said that his company will continue but that “how it exists in relationship to Dance Place will evolve.”
Morgan said he plans to spend his first six months on the job listening and learning, but he does have some changes in mind. He wants Dance Place to bring in more international artists. He also hopes to replicate the success of American Dance Institute, the former Rockville venue that presented top-tier artists such as former New York City Ballet star Wendy Whelan and noteworthy experimental troupes. It relocated to Catskill, N.Y., last year.
“That void creates an opportunity to look at what programming pushes the edge for our audience, and how do we develop it?” Morgan said. “I can look to artists of national renown and those under the radar who we can move forward, as Dance Place did with Bebe Miller and Eiko and Koma, before they became big names.”
Morgan cited labor-market statistics showing that the metro D.C. area has the highest concentration of choreographers per capita after Seattle. Despite this, he said, “we’re a little under the radar on the national scene. What I’m looking forward to is increasing the visibility of our dance scene on a larger scale.”