Music Credit: Excerpt from "Padded Walls (reEdit)" from the album Transmit by Floating Spirits, licensed through Creative Commons. Transcript: Carla Perlo Music Up Carla Perlo: I think that all artists that go into under-developed, under-resourced neighborhoods have this huge challenge which is being a vibrant part of the neighborhood. Secure your place in the neighborhood. Bond with the neighbors. Bring safety, beauty and art to that neighborhood in a way that’s organic and Dance Place has been successful I doing that. Joe Reed: That is Carla Perlo-- the founder and artistic director of Dance Place and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the national endowment for the arts. I'm Josephine Reed. For 35 years, Dance Place has been a rich artistic resource for community members and professional artists. It's hard to sum up everything Dance Place does, so I'll let Carla Perlo step in. Carla Perlo: Yeah, well, we do a lot of different things but we’ve boiled it down to we’re a presenter. We’re a school. Studio. A provider of creative education, model programs for youth. And we’re very involved in the community revitalization of Brookland. Joe Reed: Dance Place has had its home in an old garage in the Brookland neighborhood of Washington DC for the past 28 years. It's played no small role in the transformation of Brookland from a depressed marginalized area to a vibrant arts center--all the while embracing its lower income residents. This month, Dance Place had a grand re-opening ceremony after a significant and much-needed renovation. Its theater, studio and office complex added 50% more square feet allowing an additional studio and significantly more office space. The theater traded in the old metal folding chairs for comfortable plush seating. Both the sound system and the lighting are now state of the art. It even has a shower in its newly expanded dressing room. but as Carla Perlo is quick to note.... Carla Perlo: Every inch of the building has been renovated. It’s beautiful, but what’s really terrific is it still has this warmth about it. You still come in and you feel like you’re at Dance Place. Joe Reed: Given the number of kids, staff and artists in the building the day I went to talk to Carla, the amount of bustle, the sounds of music and children dancing, drumming, playing...I'm really not sure how they coped before the renovation. It took awhile to find a fairly quiet spot for our talk....and you'll hear phones ringing and people coming in and out...it's all part of what happens at Dance Place. Once we settled down, I asked Carla how she came to create dance place. Carla Perlo: I grew up in the Washington area. And I went to the University of Cincinnati for college and fell in love with dance. Studied with Thelma Hill and she was a really an unsung hero of contemporary dance, particularly for black dancers. She taught Alvin Ailey. Any black dancer who is between the ages of 60 and 65 probably studied with her. She inspired me to dance and even though I technically was way behind everyone else she encouraged me. She said, “You can do this.” And I got bit by the dance bug and joined the Contemporary Dance Theater of Cincinnati under the direction of Jefferson James. And there was a guest choreographer Jan Van Dyke that came and set to work on the company. And she was from Washington, and she said, “Washington D.C. really needs dancers. Why don’t you come home and work in Washington with me.” So I finally, after working in the inner city in Cincinnati for a year after college decided I’d move back to D.C. Moved back, worked with Jan for five years teaching in her studio and started developing my own career. And then Jan decided she didn’t want to be in D.C. anymore and she’s going to move in New York. And I didn’t want to go to New York. New York all ready had thousands of 5’2” good dancers. New York didn’t need me but Washington needed me. And this was my home. Why shouldn’t I be able to work in my own home? But there’s no work. So I had to open my own studio. And that’s how it happened. Jo Reed: And from the beginning were you seeing dance as something that really could promote change in people and touch people very deeply? Non dancers, as well as dancers. Carla Perlo: Yeah. I really wanted to be a teacher following in the footsteps of my father. Hyman Perlo was a great, great teacher. And I’ve modeled my life after him. But being a teacher of dance, since it’s a performing art I had to learn to be a performer because I knew no one would study with me if I didn’t know how to perform. So my passion was really being in the studio and working with all kinds of people: novices, professionals eventually, children. And then being a performer I decided well I needed a theater because if we’re going to have performances where are we going to go? There was no one presenting Washington-based artists. There was no one presenting or having a venue that was possible for mid-range and avant-garde artists and that’s what I was interested in. Sure, I was interested in New York City Ballet, ABT. I wanted to see Cunningham. I wanted to see Graham. I wanted to see those companies. But I always wanted to see the Bebe Millers and the Ron Browns and tons of young emerging artists that were very exciting, that were breaking ground. And the only way to see them was either to present them or go to New York. Jo Reed: And you chose? Carla Perlo: I chose to present them, which gave me greater access to those artists and a more in depth understanding of the field. So that was terrific. And I’ve been able to help nurture and develop artists and have relationships with them over time which has been very, very exciting to see a Marc Bamuthi Joseph at the beginning of his career, icons in the field of dance that I got to see as very young artists. And to see them in art theater, we seat 144 after the renovations, but to see them in an intimate setting is huge. And to have them in residency for a week where you’re in class with them, you’re in the studio with them, you’re watching them rehearse, you’re having meals with them, you’re having dialogue with them. That’s a different experience than just going to a large theater and seeing them there. Jo Reed: How long have you been in the Brookland community? Carla Perlo: Twenty-eight years. It’s an interesting story. We were in Adams Morgan which is a really hot neighborhood in northwest D.C. And it’s like SOHO of D.C. And the building was sold when I was on vacation. And I got a phone call that said, “The building has just been sold and you know you have a 30-day kick out clause, so you have 30 days to vacate. Or you can pay quadruple to rent.” So the quadruple to rent would have been $6,000 a month in 1986. That was not an option for us as an organization. Even today that rent would be way too expensive for us. So I renegotiated the lease and I bought myself six months for $3,000 a month until I could figure out where I could move my organization. And I told the board of directors, I’m not going to move into a rented space, again. I was 35 at the time. I had a two-year-old son. I was the major bread winner in my family. My husband was an accompanist and percussionist. And I wasn’t going to go through that, again, building a space and losing it, again, in five or ten years. So I said I’m either going to purchase a building or I’m going to go out of business and go to work for somebody else. So the board said, “Okay, you can look. We don’t think you’ll find anything that’s going to work but go ahead and look.” Well, I found this building. And I immediately put $10,000 on it. I had a line of credit from my chair and I immediately put the money on the building and said I want a lease option to buy it for a year. And then when I showed it to the chair, he said, “I don’t like the building and I don’t like the neighborhood.” I said, it’s too late. I’ve all ready put your money down. This is where we’re going to be. And I never looked back. Jo Reed: And what was the neighborhood like then? Carla Perlo: Deserted. Empty warehouses. Row houses across the street that were going through bankruptcy. So I was able to purchase a house across the street. I lease optioned to buy this building and I had one year to get the financing in order and to get a zoning variance because the board wouldn’t let me buy it unless I could get a zoning variance that said I could have a theater here. So I had to go through two zoning hearings. And if you’ve ever been through zoning you know it’s a really daunting process. And I didn’t have the money to hire a zoning attorney so I had to do it myself. So here I am with a three-year-old and I’ve got to get through zoning and through permitting by myself. It was very, very difficult. Besides 29 hours of back labor giving birth, giving birth to Dance Place was the second most difficult thing in my life. But we did it and we got the financing. And we went to settlement and purchased the building on December 31, on the last day that we could settle on this we settled on it. And so we bought it. And we nickeled and dime’d our way through renovations. And it’s been a fantastic location for us over time. In 1986 when we moved in here it was a particularly challenging neighborhood. It was dangerous particularly in the evenings because the street lights were not very bright. We didn’t have a lot of outdoor lighting around this building. No one lived next door. And there was no activity on the street after five o'clock. So we were the only thing open on the entire block after 5:00 P.M. and before 5:00 P.M. there wasn’t that much either. And most of our business is at night. Our classes are at night. And our performances are at night. And most of our clientele, I would say 70 percent of our clientele is women. So it was very difficult for us. And even the first performance, the critic from the Washington Post’s car got broken into. So we’ve faced a lot of challenges. And I think that all artists that go into under developed, under resourced neighborhoods have this huge challenge which is being a vibrant part of the neighborhood. Secure your place in the neighborhood. Bond with the neighbors. Bring safety, beauty and art to that neighborhood in a way that’s organic and Dance Place has been successful I doing that. Jo Reed: How do you think you were successful in doing that? Carla Perlo: We immediately answered the door. When children knocked, we answered the door. We didn’t create programs because there was funding. We created programs to fill the need of the children and the families in this neighborhood. We also ironically didn’t have a sparkling new beautiful building that you see today. This renovation has brought us to a much higher level of artistic sophistication in terms of our look. But we’ve been here for 28 years so everyone has known us as a modestly converted brick warehouse. And the renovations that we’ve done have been incremental with the programming coming first and the pretty building coming last. So we’ve all ready raised generations of kids in this neighborhood who love us. And who know that the truth about us is not the beauty from the outside, but it’s the beauty on the inside and the kind of programming and care and love that we have with our community. Jo Reed: Let’s talk about some of that programming. Why don’t we start with the programs that you do for kids, the camp and after school programs. Carla Perlo: Sure. And, again, those were developed because the children were knocking on the door. There was nothing in this neighborhood on this side of a major street which is Michigan Avenue. So south of Michigan Avenue there was really nothing for these children. And south of Michigan Avenue is where most low income people live. You have a lot of low income apartments here. So there were a lot of children that were unattended after school and causing a lot of trouble. It was very dangerous. They were running up on roofs, throwing rocks, breaking car windows, and then running down the side of the building and running on to the railroad tracks to get away. So something had to be done. And I was really busy being a dancer and a choreographer and a performer and a presenter but I had to make time for the boys in the neighborhood. So following my father’s footsteps I created a program called “The Energizers.” And they earned money working for the organization. And it was a lot of life skills and academic enrichment. And it started as a boys’ club. And then the girls in the neighborhood said we were discriminating so we made a girls’ club. Then we got really brave and we said okay it’s the boys and girls club. And so there was always an aftercare program starting in those early days, boys, girls and then integrated. And as the kids got older the program grew. So then we had “The Energizer” program and then we made a junior staff program. Then the program grew so much that we needed college interns to augment staff and there was this big call for who’s going to be the next arts administrators? Who will be the next youth educators? So the intern program was a perfect solution to training the next generation of administrators and youth educators, and also giving us some supplementary staff. Now, we have 12 interns from college that we house. And then in the summer it was a perfect opportunity to have a summer camp. The kids in the aftercare program, they wanted to be here all of the time. So we said let’s have a summer camp. The summer camp started two days a week, twelve to five, because that’s the only time I could manage them. And then over time as I raised money and grew the staff now the camp is five days a week, seven weeks, nine to six with before care seven to nine. So you’ve got children that are here from seven in the morning until six at night and then at six when they’re supposed to go home, they don’t want to go home. And that’s the greatest because the children here they really feel part of a family. And all of them do some type of performing arts. So they’re either dancing, doing spoken word, drumming, chorus, and then most of them do either gardening or arts and crafts. They all do academic enrichment. There’s always reading, writing, and math that’s woven in in a fun way. I hated school. So one of my objectives is to make education fun. Everyone should love school. School should be the greatest most creative fun place to be. Why aren’t children clamoring to go to school like they’re clamoring to come to Dance Place? Jo Reed: You also are teaching dance classes? Carla Perlo: Yeah, we have professional classes here that serve the professional dance community and also the avocational dance community and it’s all taught by professionals in a wide range of dance forms: contemporary, African, jazz, hip hop, salsa. And those happen in the mornings and on Saturday and every evening. And then we have performances every single weekend and we provide home seasons for local artists, D.C. based artists. And a rigorous touring program for national artists and international artists. And we like to think that we discover and support and nurture some of Washington’s best and some of our nation and the top international companies that are touring. And when I say top, I’m not talking about in terms of size and money but people who have become discovered here and go on to the Kennedy Center and then come back because they want to perform in front in an intimate setting. And the same with the Brookland Academy of Music. We have a great relationship with them. And we have been a hotbed for people that have gone on to the Next Wave Festival. Many, many artists. Too many to actually list. Jo Reed: Yeah, I would think. Well, as you’re presenting and presenting very innovative artists you’re clearly also doing it with an eye to the community because you have a family series. Carla Perlo: Yes. So our family series and our program called Art on 8th and we thank the National Endowment for the Arts for funding it. It’s through the Our Town grant and that is tremendous funding. I really applaud the endowment for that new initiative. It’s made a huge impact on art organizations throughout the country to be able to have deeper, wider tentacles into their communities. I think one of the reasons it was created is because theaters were having a hard time for people coming in. So they said if we could go out more maybe we can excite people about coming in. So we’ve had this wonderful program first funded by Art Place through the Temporium Projects where we had free programming in the community in temporary spaces. And we decided, let’s expand from dance. Let’s present music and let’s do interactive dance. So they’re kind of performance/workshops. And then let’s do visual art, arts and crafts, visual art workshops and all of these intergenerational. They’re all free to the public. So we started with the Temporium project and we did that two summers ago. And then we got the Our Town grant and we began doing these on the Monroe Street market plaza which is a new plaza just directly up the street from Dance Place. And we now do those Thursday night music, Friday interactive dance, Saturday visual art and arts and crafts. They’re all free to the public. They’re all intergenerational. And it’s a great way for different cultures, different ages, residents that have been here a long time and new residents to get to know each other because there’s often a rub there. Here are the new residents that have moved into the new Brookland that are much more affluent in some cases to people who have been here previously. So this is our way. And I always have felt like the arts is the equalizer. You’re looking at art together. You’re listening to art. You’re making art together, there’s no dividing line. Jo Reed: And I think it also makes a difference when it’s happening in a public space as opposed to bringing people into a private arena for it. Carla Perlo: Right. And it isn’t for all artists. I mean I’m very clear with the artists. This is what this is. This is not going to be a sit down quiet audience. This is going to be kids dancing, parents talking to children, teens walking by. And so we really have to curate and select the artists that are going to do well in that environment. We’ve had a great time with it. This is our second season of it and it’s been wonderful. Joe Reed: And in addition you have a family series. Carla Perlo: So we have our Art on 8th which are all of the free events. Then we have our family series in our theater where with one paying adult you get a free children’s ticket and we do that because we want adults to spend time with children. And it’s family series. It’s not children’s performances. So the adult comes here thinking oh I’m taking my child to this children’s performance. It’s really for them. It’s not for me. They’re sitting in the theater and they’re loving it and they’re saying, this is great. I’m having just as good an experience-- I’m having a double experience. I’m having a great experience because I really like this performance and I get to watch my child enjoying the performance. And now we have something to talk about that isn’t cleaning your room and doing your homework. So that was the thought behind that. Jo Reed: And there’s also a real influx of art presenters, art organizations, artists in a very small stretch of Brookland. Carla Perlo: Yeah, it’s all on 8th Street, so that’s Art on 8th. And they’re calling this the arts walk because when you leave Dance Place, you go next door to ArtSpace and that’s 39 live/work space for artists, our second studio, our children’s center and secondary office. You go up the street a little farther and you have Excel Movement Studios which is a state of the art Pilates and yoga studio. You go up to the corner and you have the Edgewood Art Center which Dance Place manages. And it is a beautiful wide open space that you can rent for classes or rehearsals or special events. Then you cross the street and you have 29 retail artists, gallery workshops. Dance Place has one of them called Studio 21 which is our launching place for our Art on 8th events and our visual art component. Every month we feature a different artist. And every Saturday that’s where we have our art workshops. So that is a lot of arts within two blocks which is just wonderful. Jo Reed: Yeah, and I wanted to ask you about that. What happens when you have a critical mass of artists? What happens to a community when that happens? And is that necessary for change? Carla Perlo: You know, it’s funny because you think that the minute everybody gets here they’ll be all of this collaboration, at least we did. We thought when the artists move next door, ArtSpace, you’ll immediately have all of this collaboration that will be going on and you'll have set designers that will be creating new sets that will work with the choreographers and they’ll be this sort of like instant love and this instant magic that happens. And actually it takes time. And it’s working and it’s great and there’s synergy but it’s taking time for it all to fit together. You can build a building in a year or two but it takes a long time to build a community. People go into their little spaces and they do their work and they’re working as hard as they can just to survive in their little space. So the synergy doesn’t happen as quickly as one would think. What makes them come out of their studio? What makes them come out of their house even more now than ever? How many screens do people have in their houses? All they need is their cell phone but they’ve got their cell phone, they’ve got their iPad, they’ve got their computer. There’s a lot to keep you inside. So when you’re an artist you’re working a million hours to support yourself. Then you’re an artist and you’ve got a family. So you’re working a million hours to support yourself, create your art and then take care of your family. So where’s the collaborative time? Where is there even time to meet your neighbors? How do we get residents that are working two jobs, low income families that are working two jobs, two and three jobs just to pay the expenses to have time to meet the new residents or share resources. So unless we have public places and public art that draws them there, a reason there’s got to a really good strong reason after you’ve worked all day to leave your house to go meet somebody new. And what causes you to meet that person? What’s the dialogue? You go to the coffee shop you’re probably on your cell phone and you’re probably checking your email. You’re not meeting anybody new. So where do people meet? Online. Or the arts plaza, Art on 8th or the lobby of the theater. So still I think that the performing arts has a huge role to play of getting people away from their screens, meeting each other, experiencing art together. Jo Reed: You’ve said that you think kids who get experience performing it gives them truly a lifelong skill. Carla Perlo: There is no question about it. You show me a child that got on stage and performed something, I don’t care what it is, and I’ll show you a child that can do a good job interview, present themself with confidence because there’s nothing scarier than being on stage and that light goes on and you’ve got to do your best. So you have that as a background. Remember when you got on stage and you were afraid but you got out there and you did your best and how great it felt at the end when you took your bow and everyone applauded you? Well, that’s how I want you to be in this interview. You can do it. That’s how I want you to be when you take that test. You can do it. That’s how I want you to be when you apply for that college scholarship. You can do it. That’s what the performing arts teaches people. I drew it. I was a little scared to show and then I showed it to you and you liked it and I felt proud of it. If I can do that I can definitely take this test. Jo Reed: It’s interesting, when you bring up the next generation because you have at this point 35 years, that’s 2 generations by my count, maybe 3. Carla Perlo: It is. Yeah. Jo Reed: Tell me what you’ve seen? Carla Perlo: In terms of the art form what’s been fantastic for dance is that now everything’s blended. You can use any art form you want. You just have so much cross over from the ballet field to avant-garde to hip hop. It’s wonderful to see that blending. It’s like the world has opened up. We’ve got the Internet and the world is open. Everyone’s learning from everybody. I think it’s very, very exciting. One would only hope that it could influence world peace. Jo Reed: Your mouth, God’s ear as they say. Finally, Carla, when you look ahead, at both Dance Place and about the arts in general in Washington D.C. what do you see or what do you want to see? Carla Perlo: Yeah, I think we have a very talented younger generation that is very eager to even go deeper. And they’re going to go deeper because we’ve cut the path. And because of the advances in technology that they can apply to business, to art, and it’s a very exciting time for them. They are ready to take over. They are nipping at our heels and that’s a good thing because it tells you that you’ve done your job. And I know a lot of people criticize the younger generation because they think, oh they don’t know how to communicate, they’re always on email, they’re always texting. The younger generation is fantastic. They really can do so much. And yes their world is different than ours but that’s good. And I think that the arts are in great hands with the younger generation. I think they’re open. They want to collaborate. And I think we’re just going to see art just continue to not only be great art for art’s sake but we’re going to the see power of how it can build community. Jo Reed: Excellent, Carla. Thank you. And thank you for everything you do… Carla Perlo: Thank you so much. Again, I really want to thank you for this time to give me a voice. And also the National Endowment for the Arts. It’s huge in terms of its impact and we really need the endowment to be strong and help us lead the way. Thanks so much. Jo Reed: Thank you. Music Up Jo Reed: That is Carla Perlo, the founder and artistic director of Dance Place. You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Next week, 2013 National Heritage Fellow, Chunky Sanchez To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
How Dance Place’s open door policy helped transform an underserved neighborhood into a vital arts district.