Carla Perlo and Deborah Riley, co-directors of Dance Place, lean back in their comfortable new theater seats. They look down at the sweat-stained men laboring on the stage below. They look up at the new lighting system.
They look at each other and remember what a full-scale, full-body hassle it was to get everything to this relatively calm, cool point, overseeing the final touches for this weekend’s gala. After a 10-month, $4 million renovation, their theater and studio complex in Brookland is finally reopening.
“Deborah, my feet don’t touch the ground!” Perlo, who is 5-foot-21 / 2, would complain as they were testing which seats to install on the custom-built risers. “I’m not comfortable!”
“I know Deborah was frustrated,” Perlo says, waving a hand toward her willowy, 5-foot-6-inch partner. “But that’s so bad for your lower back.”
Riley smiles serenely but doesn’t say anything. As usual.
They are the yin and yang of Dance Place, these two women. Perlo, 62, is broad-framed and forceful. Riley, 64, is long-limbed and gentle. She’s the light to Perlo’s dark, the grace to Perlo’s power.
Together, they form a creative whirlwind, a dynamic force greater than the sum of its mismatched parts. They are the presiding goddesses of this longstanding temple of dance, which is housed in a former welding workshop on a once-
desolate street in Brookland.
The concrete bunker was a step up from the back-alley dive in Adams Morgan where Perlo founded Dance Place in 1980. Since moving to 3225 Eighth St. NE, in the shadow of Catholic University, in 1986, Dance Place has become the area’s most prolific presenter and training facility for modern dance. There are classes for kids and adults every day and performances nearly every weekend. Affordability is a priority: Tickets are generally $15 to $30.
The studio is a vestige of artistic grit, the kind that has transformed holes-in-the-wall in cities around the country. It arose from that 1960s ideal that you can convert a garage and get a great space. That’s been true enough for 35 years, during which Dance Place has been a rare find: a no-frills artists’ haven where the porch light is always on.
Perlo and Riley have kept the doors open through zoning variances and break-ins, through flooding toilets and recessions. They kept them open when there was nothing on Eighth Street but warehouses and car-repair shops and kids throwing rocks.
One of those kids — grown now, almost 30 — unlocks the sparkling new double doors to welcome a visitor into Dance Place’s cheerful red-and-yellow lobby. The tall young man is Delante White, one of the youth leaders of Dance Place’s Energizers Afterschool Club. He started working at Dance Place when he was 10 and up to no good and Perlo chased after him and his rock-chucking buddies.
“The boys were looking for attention,” Perlo says, “and we gave them attention.”
She paid them to pick up trash around her theater. She engaged them in “creative play,” sneaking in a little dance training between slam dunks. She took them to dance performances and had the boys critique them. Thus was the Energizers program born, one of many ways Perlo spread the gospel of the arts beyond her studio’s walls.
With Dance Place as the anchor, the neighborhood began to change. Brookland Studios set up next door; it’s now Brookland Artspace Lofts, with galleries and housing for artists. Charter schools opened nearby. Two blocks away is the new Monroe Street Market development, home of the Edgewood Arts Building and an Arts Walk showcasing local craftspeople. Last May, Perlo launched “Art on Eighth” there, with evening programs of music, dance and crafts.
Through it all, Dance Place stayed the same — a converted garage. It had an all-embracing energy, reflecting the wholesome, upbeat tastes of Perlo and Riley. But in many ways it was an awkward space for dance. There was only one studio, and it doubled as the black-box theater. The backstage area was impossibly tight and had no heat or air conditioning. Large groups had to set up a tent in the alley for a dressing room; if it rained, they puddle-jumped to the stage. If artists had to pee during a performance, they couldn’t flush; there was no door on the bathroom, and it was just behind the stage. Even an ironing board was a luxury, donated by a costume designer who was faced with using a board set up on bar stools.
Riley shows off the newly enlarged dressing room with a shower and rows of makeup lights. “We went from something . . .” She pauses, searching for a word. Something not too harsh, no doubt.
Perlo has it: “Rudimentary.”
“Rudimentary,” Riley continues, “to something that’s not huge but is really great for our purposes. We’ll serve the artists a lot better.”
Dance Place has been gutted and reconstructed, inch by inch, over the past year, and it still feels homey. And quirky. The first thing you notice from the street is a tower of colored glass jutting from one corner. The tall patchwork of reds, blues, greens and pinks pokes past the roof of the two-story building. At sidewalk level, there are rows of silver handprints; touch them, and they emit sounds. The installation, called “Touch My Building,” was designed by Christopher Janney, creator of similar projects at Miami International Airport and around the country.
The expanded office space upstairs, flooded with colored light from Janney’s tower, is quiet. The action is downstairs, where lights are being hung, plywood cut, sound systems checked. Perlo’s husband, Richard Pilkinton, a former Dance Place board chairman, is pushing a broom. Having raised $3.4 million for the renovations — from city and national government entities, including the National Endowment for the Arts, and foundations and individual donors — Perlo and Riley still need $600,000. They hope to have it within a year.
Saturday’s reopening fundraiser, with a reception and dance party, kicks off the 2014-2015 performance series. In the coming weeks and months, Dance Place will host Hind Benali from Morocco, Companhia Urbana de Danca from Brazil, groups from Cuba, California and New York, as well as local artists PearsonWidrig Dance Theater, KanKouran West African Dance Company and others.
With all the construction, you never know what might happen. In June, the theater opened for a test-run with its annual Dance Africa festival. That morning, all the toilets failed and started to erupt through the shower backstage. Riley slapped up “Do Not Enter” signs on the bathrooms, grabbed a Shop-Vac and some towels and got to work sucking up the flood. Ticket buyers were directed to restrooms next door at Brookland Artspace. Riley smoothed over the trouble and kept everyone happy.
“We seemed to have it under control,” Riley says. “Until it happened again the next day.”
Perlo compares running Dance Place to running a household: taking care of whatever comes up, making people feel at home and, with the redesign, creating a cozy nest of color, warm wood and back support.
“What was more important for us than cramming people in was making a very comfortable theater,” says Perlo. They cut back on capacity in favor of firm-cushioned furniture and legroom. Out went 160 metal folding chairs; in came 144 upholstered theater seats. Petites’ feet will touch the ground. Larger patrons can opt for extra-wide chairs.
“Deborah is a curve and I’m a straight line,” says Perlo. She launches into a narrative that distills their different styles. “I make a decision and I just go for it. Deborah says, ‘Well, consider this.’ I say, ‘Just go for it! You don’t need everybody’s opinion. Just go!’
“But Deborah will say, ‘Don’t you think you might want to get the rest of the staff’s input on that, Carla? Don’t you think they might appreciate that?’” Perlo sits back, as if newly persuaded by Riley’s voice. “Therefore,” she concludes, “it’s a better decision. There’s more buy-in.”
In peaceable silence, Riley watches Perlo’s re-enactment and the choppy hand-ballet that accompanies it. She smiles.
“Well,” she says finally, “we know we can agree on so many things.”
When Perlo was running the original Dance Place in Adams Morgan, you had to jiggle your keys, loudly, as you walked to its back-alley entrance. You did that to keep the rats away.
“We called it ‘Rats Alley,’ ” Perlo says with a smile. “It wasn’t a very appealing place. But that allowed us the freedom to be there.”
Then the phone call came, the one telling Perlo she had 30 days to move out, and if she didn’t, her rent would quadruple.
“I lost my building, lost my job and had a 3-year-old son. What was I gonna do?” Perlo recalls, agitated by the memory.
“It was a blessing in disguise,” Riley says soothingly, “because without it we wouldn’t have been able to develop this space as we’ve done.”
In purchasing the modest box in Brookland, Perlo says Dance Place became only the second dance organization in the country to own and operate its own space. (The first, she says, was Margaret Jenkins’s space in San Francisco.)
Riley had toured the world with Douglas Dunne and Dancers , led by the former Merce Cunningham dancer. But she was tired of the competitive dance scene in New York. She came to Dance Place as a teacher and founder of one of its resident companies, and in 1999 Perlo made her co-director.
But first, Perlo tried to push her out. Go to graduate school, teach at a university, she told Riley. “I knew she’d be able to make more money and have a better life,” Perlo says as she jumps up to get a bottle of water.
“It’s a home,” says Riley, explaining why she ignored the advice. “Carla made it immediately a home for me. You can’t ask for anything better in life than to feel like you have a home and a place to grow.”
Talk to people about Dance Place’s directors and a consistent metaphor comes up: mothering. It’s in the way they have mentored scores of artists, among them Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh Dance Company and Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company; the African-based Coyaba Dance Theater; and Cuban-inspired D.C. Casineros. It’s in the care with which they have fit themselves into the neighborhood, and how they have drawn in their neighbors and their neighbors’ children with family and youth programs.
“Their devotion to the space is really indicative that it’s two women,” says Judy Hansen, who has made costumes for many of the troupes at Dance Place. “The way they have nurtured the place. Carla is like an Italian grandmother; if she had a big bowl of pasta, she’d be handing it out.”
“They’ve been my dance godmothers,” says Singh, whose Indian and modern-dance fusion troupe has performed at Dance Place for eight years. “So many times when I’ve had a rough year with grants or whatever, I’ve called them up, and they’re always willing to listen. I’ve called so many times in panic, and they walk me through the options.”
Theirs is a “charming co-leading situation,” he says. Riley “really listens and says what she would do, as opposed to saying what I should do. With Carla, it’s like she wants to save you. She wants to make it work. So both of them are like the perfect being.”
The two women aren’t finished refining Dance Place. Next they want to improve the alley separating it from Brookland Artspace, put in gardens and make it an arts park. They also want to work out a plan of succession. Neither sees herself working six- and seven-day weeks forever.
And there’s still work to be done on the building. A second studio was added upstairs. Named for Perlo’s father, Hyman M. Perlo, it has a custom-built “sprung” wood floor, with just the right amount of give to prevent injuries, but no mirrors yet. Perlo nudges you inside so you can take it all in: the windows, the empty space waiting for dancers. The firm, healthy support.
“Go on. Feel the floor,” she urges. “It’s really great.”
Grand Reopening Celebration & Performance will be Sept. 13. Reception, tours and silent auction at 6:30 p.m.; performance at 8; dance party at 9. Dance Place, 3225 Eighth St. NE. Call 202-269-1600 or visit www.danceplace.org.