Planting Seeds for Dance To Flourish for Generations
By Lisa Traiger
“Malawi, takes these mandara plants and dig up half. Separate them, then move them over there into those large pots.” “Jamie, be sure to give those nasturtiums plenty of water. They’re looking dry.” “And Alejandro, go work with Chuck on planting the kale seeds outside.” That’s Carla Perlo putting her small army of budding horticulturists to work at Takoma Park Middle School’s greenhouse in suburban Maryland. She’s there every Tuesday during the school year.
Perlo — dancer, choreographer, educator, administrator and arts activist — has been the driving force behind Dance Place, Washington, D.C.’s home for modern, vernacular and world dance forms for 37 years. Next month, she receives the 2018 Ernie Award at Dance/USA’s Annual Conference in Los Angeles, recognizing her unparalleled contributions to building a viable dance presenting and educational center in the nation’s capital, while planting seeds for dance to thrive in the city and beyond.
Founded in 1980, Perlo helmed Dance Place until retiring in 2017. But she hasn’t slowed down. These days planning, planting, cultivating and harvesting occupy her time, both at Dance Place and with the budding student gardening club near her home. For most of her career Perlo had no interest in — nor time for — gardening. Five years ago that changed. “I always had wonderful native plants, ferns in the backyard … and different things flowered in this yard every month. I enjoyed them, but never had any time to do anything with them.”
She began experimenting in her own backyard: “Could I move the day lilies from here to Dance Place? I wanted to activate the gardens there and we didn’t have any money.” With the Energizers Club, a Dance Place-sponsored neighborhood afterschool and summer club for children and teens, Perlo teaches them what she was learning. These city kids get their hands dirty, till soil, pull weeds, plant and maintain the gardens around the Dance Place building. They gain practical skills and a sense of responsibility to the community and to their fellow youthful gardeners to stay on track with watering, weeding and harvesting.
For more than three decades Perlo’s Dance Place has been the central hub for dance in the Washington metropolitan area, offering an extensive performance series nearly every weekend of the year, plus professional-level training classes and a growing youth program that Perlo named the Energizers — yes, after the bunny. That neighborhood program provides arts experiences, gardening, homework supervision and mentorship for youths.
Perlo is a rare dance visionary: building a space and a community for dance, nurturing choreographers and young companies, in a once off-the-beaten-track neighborhood, which is now a quickly gentrifying arts destination. She’s been at it for the majority of her career. “A lot of people were amazed that I could stand to do the same job for 37 years,” she said. “But my job changed every time a new staff person came on. Now there’s 22 and 12 interns. Every new person who comes in means you have an opportunity to do other things you couldn’t do before. It frees you up to do other things.”
Perlo came to dance late, but grew up in an active household where she was physical. Her father, Hyman Perlo, was a coach, camp director and director of community relations for Washington, D.C.’s NBA team. In college at the University of Cincinnati she majored in physical education. “I liked folk dance and I liked social dance, so I thought I’ll go to college and study a little bit of dance and see what it’s like. But I knew I liked to teach,” she said, thinking that she would end up teaching dance and phys ed. But jobs for public school dance teachers were few. Perlo ended up with one of the only full-time dance jobs in Cincinnati: teaching inner city youths for Contemporary Dance Theater upon graduating from the University of Cincinnati.
After a tour and a teaching stint in Israel, Perlo returned to Washington, following one of her mentors, Jan Van Dyke, who asked Perlo to teach the adult beginners at her Dance Project studio. When Van Dyke moved to New York, Perlo took over, renamed the operation Dance Place in 1980, and began presenting more than the handful of modern dance companies that Van Dyke had presented. “I had no plan to run a studio,” Perlo insisted, “but I didn’t have a choice. I knew that in order to have a vibrant local scene, we had to have a studio theater … My intent was always to do a touring season of artists who I thought were important to be seen but were never going to be booked at the Kennedy Center. I also wanted to nurture the local talent, both the dancers and the choreographers, and to help establish companies here. And I wanted to have a rigorous youth program, which was difficult because we had the back alley entrance.”
Her plan in 1985, after a rent increase priced Dance Place out of the Adams Morgan neighborhood, was to either buy a building or close down. Dance Place was only the second dance organization to purchase its own building, following choreographer Margaret Jenkins, who did the same with the Dance Gallery in San Francisco a few years earlier. Today, dance companies and presenters around the country have followed that path, purchasing and renovating their own buildings, from the Alvin Ailey Dance Center to the Nashville Ballet to the former Dance Theater Workshop (now New York Live Arts).
Looking back, Perlo has accomplished all she set out to do and more. Companies and performers from all over the country and the world know that when they tour to Dance Place they’ll be taken care of and treated with care and respect. With a serious eye for high-quality and cutting edge dance across genres, and as a founding member of the National Performance Network (NPN), over the years Perlo has introduced cutting-edge artists like Urban Bush Women, David Parsons, Margaret Jenkins, Mark Dendy, Eiko and Koma, the Blue Man Group, Cuba’s Malpaso and many, many more to the Washington, D.C. Often after Dance Place their next stop would be the Kennedy Center. But Perlo was committed to nurturing locally grown dance companies and choreographers from Dance Exchange to Step Afrika, Gesel Mason to Helanius Wilkins to tapper Baakari Wilder and pop singer/songwriter Mya, who all got their start on Dance Place’s black box stage, with its tight wing space but open-minded audiences.
“What I appreciate about Carla is that she fully trusted me as a artist and because of that trust I felt empowered to continue to explore and create,” said international solo artist Nejla Yatkin. Chicago-based Yatkin recalls her first solo performance at Dance Place in 2000 shortly after she moved to the city: “I was new in town and Carla gave me a space to try things out.” These days Yatkin, who began touring through NPN due to Perlo’s introduction, performs on the international circuit.
While overseeing Dance Place, Perlo maintained her own troupe, Carla & Company, as did her long-time business associate Deborah Riley. “We have mutual respect for each other’s art making … I know for some people in some organizations that’s a hard thing to balance, administration and artmaking,” Riley said. “We frequently would talk about dancers and working with our companies. We shared a lot.” And, like a marriage, they didn’t always agree, but they came to consensus about the direction and goals of the organization.
Riley came to Dance Place from New York in 1986, after dancing with Douglas Dunn and her duet partner Diane Frank. Perlo first hired her to answer phones and then teach modern dance. Soon she was production coordinator, and, ultimately, codirector. “Carla is the pioneer. Her legacy is huge. Now creative placemaking is recognized as being valuable in artistic development and community development. But Carla and Dance Place were doing that before there was even a term. Carla and Dance Place went a long time without that visibility.”
Growing for Future Generations
Perlo and Riley determined the need to step down together to allow the next generation to take the reins of the organization following completion of a $4.5 million capital campaign and major building renovation. Today the building stands as a beacon in the Brookland neighborhood of Northeast Washington, where up the street an Arts Walk filled with independent galleries, restaurants and boutiques is thriving because Dance Place put down roots more than three decades earlier. Next door to the studio/theater, Brookland Artspace Lofts opened to provide income-based dedicated artist housing. And Perlo’s latest vision for Dance Place, its Arts Park, creates a destination for neighbors of all ages with interactive sculpture, a basketball hoop, those fragrant gardens and a shifting roster of activities for children, families and singles.
One of Perlo’s oldest and closest friends is Karen Brooks Hopkins, president emerita of Brooklyn Academy of Music. The two met at Camp Buffalo Gap in West Virginia where they were both counselors — Hopkins in theater and Perlo taught folk dance and synchronized swimming. “Carla has embodied the work of an artist, an arts administrator and a community leader,” Hopkins, now a senior adviser for the Onassis Foundation and a consultant for the Mellon Foundation, said. “Carla is all three things and therefore her impact is substantial in the way that we hope that culture will be substantial, that it will affect people because of the art they see, because of the place they visit and because of the benefit to community.”
For more than 30 years Hopkins served on Dance Place’s board of directors and she was a helpful sounding board for Perlo. Hopkins described her friend: “She is fearless. She is constantly in motion. She’s always doing something like multitasking, whether she’s writing a proposal, putting together the movement sequences for next week’s classes, talking on the phone and crafting.” They often commiserated about the endless stress of fundraising. Hopkins noted, “The hardest part of organizational management in the arts is the fundraising capital campaign — raising the capital, the operating budget, the reserves. You have to maintain total discipline, deal with rejection, stay focused and bring in the money. And a lot of people depend on you.” “It was an unbelievable amount of pressure,” Perlo said about raising that much, on top of the annual $1 million general operating budget. She knew that once the building was complete, she would move on.
Perlo left Dance Place on solid financial footing under the leadership of choreographer/dancer Christopher K. Morgan. But she’s far from retired. These days, aside from gardening, Perlo is developing her garden clubs into a full-fledged educational program, where students will learn about environmental practices, the life-cycle of plants and responsible stewardship of natural resources. So she’s still writing grant proposals, developing curriculum, teaching, organizing. This summer her Energizers club will be replicated at the new choreographic center the Lumberyard Contemporary Performing Arts in Catskill, N.Y. Now a consultant, Perlo bringing her community-based youth programs to the working class neighborhood adjacent to Lumberyard. She’ll be in residence for at least two weeks to launch the new group this summer. “It’s really challenging, exciting work — a whole new frontier. I’m taking some of the best practices from the Energizers and the best practices from my People, Objects, Play [educational program], which is basically danced with objects, and utilizing that with these different youth groups and I’m having a lot of success with it.”
Riley and Perlo worked together for 30 years becoming close friends and supportive collaborators. Asked about Perlo Riley said: “There’s so many ways to describe her. She’s a fireball of ideas with a laser focus and a huge heart. Her huge heart is especially important.” Yatkin remains in touch with Perlo: “I appreciate her advice and friendship. I think every city needs a Carla!”
Perlo isn’t looking back though, she’s looking ahead. Her diagnosis for the state of the field is a healthy one. “Dance is alive and well because of the young people,” she said. “I see so many talented young people who want to be in the field. We’re seeing new spaces for dance all over the country …. People are buying their buildings. That makes me feel that there is real hope.” And some stability in a field where dance has so often been pushed to the periphery.
The seeds Perlo planted for a multifaceted dance organization in Washington, D.C., are now in full bloom. These days her gardens flourish and many of her young gardeners now invite and instruct others to till the land. What draws her to the earth, the soil, the seeds? The possibility to grow, regenerate, be in touch with the earth and all its unpredictable elements. “You’re going to watch this thing you planted grow: You’re going to water it and it’s going to take a long time and a lot of work,” she said. “Then when it finally takes root, you’re going to be really happy and in the fall when you pull it out of that ground and you get to eat it, who doesn’t love that? But I can tell you one thing, if you don’t water it, if you don’t care for it. It’s going to die. And we see a lot of that, too.”
“Patience,” she said and just stopped there. If that recipe for gardening sounds like advice for choreography or institution-building, Perlo allowed that they’re not dissimilar. “It’s the same process: experiment. It takes time. It takes collaboration. It takes an awareness of others. It doesn’t happen overnight and it very rarely happens without other people. That’s the creative process.”
“Plants,” she said, “are persistent; they will come up through any crack possible.”
Lisa Traiger edits From the Green Room, Dance/USA’s online journal, and writes frequently on dance and the performing arts for a variety of publications including Dance, Dance Teacher, Washington Jewish Week and DCDanceWatcher. Her first job out of college was as general manager at Dance Place, the first full-time staff position Carla Perlo created for the then-young organization.
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