In a further reshaping of Washington’s dance landscape, Dance Place founding director Carla Perlo and co-director Deborah Riley have announced that they will retire next year. The board is launching a nationwide search for a new director and hopes to name a successor next spring, the two women said in a recent interview.
Perlo and Riley both said they intend to remain in the area after leaving Dance Place in August 2017. But having overseen the growth of the studio and performance venue from a cramped walk-up in Adams Morgan to a former welding workshop in Brookland, with a recent $4 million renovation and a national reputation, they say it’s time for a slower pace.
“This is a very rigorous job, being on-site. There’s no dimmer switch,” said Perlo, 64. Her early mornings, late nights and six- or seven-day workweeks began when she opened Dance Place in 1980. Riley, 66, joined Perlo as co-director in 1999.
The news of their retirement will undoubtedly be a hard lump to swallow for longtime dance followers, dancers and innumerable arts enthusiasts who have relied on Dance Place for performances and training for 35 years. Perlo and Riley have supported and mentored local and out-of-town artists extensively and lovingly, turning their modest but always welcoming institution into the heart of the region’s dance life.
But if losing their community devotion and wide-ranging appetite in programming is unthinkable, adding even greater consequence is that this news follows other major dance changes here. Last month, the Washington Ballet named a new artistic director — former American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Julie Kent, who will replace Septime Webre in July. Webre has led the company for 17 years.
In January, the American Dance Institute announced that in 2017 it will close the Rockville, Md., facility where it has presented experimental performing artists since 2008; it’s relocating to Catskill, N.Y.
And in 2011, Dance Exchange founder Liz Lerman stepped down from the widely respected company and training facility she had run for 35 years. It continues in Takoma Park, Md., but in a much-downsized form.
Ever the optimist, Perlo says she sees promise in the shifts throughout the D.C. dance community. “We’re talking about all these different organizations, and how wonderful that there are so many to talk about,” she said. “They’ve all survived and thrived and are lasting long enough to have legacies of directors.
“This is great news, to actually live long enough to be retiring,” she added, laughing.
The two directors said their decision had been planned for a couple of years. But when it was made known to their co-workers and confidantes, it was “a true shock to the staff and board and everyone,” said Jannes Gibson, chair of the Dance Place board of directors. “Everyone wants to see these people who have been there and done so well stay there forever, but that’s not the way the world works.”
The time had come, Perlo said, because by the end of next summer “I will have accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish: creating a permanent home, being an anchor in the neighborhood, making it into a wonderful place to work and live and visit, with a wonderful campus and facility, and a fantastic staff and board of directors. And I feel the next generation is ready to be in the spotlight.”
Riley pointed to the completion of various capital projects, including the 2014 renovation of the headquarters, with added office space and an improved theater.
“We’re leaving the organization strong, with a wonderful building and a supportive staff, to go into the future, so the new leadership doesn’t have to struggle with that part,” Riley said. That strength is especially important, she said, in passing the institution from longtime directors to someone new.
“While Dance Place is in the financial shape to weather that change, nonetheless that’s a very big change in voices,” Riley said. The current budget is $1.8 million, Gibson said. In 1985, when Perlo moved Dance Place to Brookland, it was $500,000.
Once she retires, Riley said she plans to continue her current passion, which is teaching dance to older adults. Perlo said she hopes to take what she’s learned in developing the Brookland community to other arts organizations.
The directors and Gibson agree that Dance Place’s new director will be expected to continue the center’s community involvement as well as its programming. Nearly every weekend year-round, Dance Place presents performances by local, national or international troupes. It also offers dance classes six days a week, as well as after-school programs and summer camps for neighborhood children.
“The board is in agreement that we’re not going in a totally new direction,” Gibson said Friday. “We want to continue the programs that are there.”
Celebrations of Perlo and Riley are planned for the 2016-2017 season, which will also feature such artists as Ron Brown/Evidence and Rennie Harris Pure Movement as well as a tribute to Marvin Gaye.