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In the wake of this summer’s protests and calls for racial justice and equity, cultural organizations big and small have been wrestling with related questions and concerns about their work and operations. Dance Place is among them.
“We’ve been hosting a series of conversations looking at the broad field of dance [and] dance’s complicity in white supremacy,” says artistic director Christopher K. Morgan. “[We’re] asking difficult and important questions about the presence and space for Blackness in the work that we do: What does that look like? What does that mean? What are the structures that have been systemically racist about the ways that dance is produced for the concert stage in this country?”
The conversations have been led by Ryan and Quynn Johnson, renowned tap dancers and co-founders of percussive dance company Sole Defined, who just completed two years as Artists in Residence at Dance Place.
The organization, a cultural anchor of its Brookland neighborhood and one of the city’s leading presenters of dance and movement theater, has long shown a commitment to promoting and advancing the rich diversity of expression and appeal found in the genre. “That’s always been part of the work we do,” says Morgan, who succeeded co-founder Carla Perlo at the helm three years ago.
“Over 60 percent of our artists on stage identify as people of color,” he says. “Our board is over 50 percent people of color. Our audiences are around 60 percent of self-identified people of color. There’s always more work to do on these challenges and issues. So while I feel grateful that I am part of an institution that is doing good work and is trying to approach it mindfully, in that mindfulness, we need to pay even closer attention to make sure we’re doing better.”
At the moment, the organization is focusing on celebrating its work and the success it has achieved over the past four decades. The 40th Anniversary “Fortitude Gala,” set for this Friday, Oct. 2, is free and open to all and, says Morgan, will feature performances by dancers and dance companies that “reflect different aspects of our community and the work that we do.”
Culture Shock DC will kick off the virtual proceedings with a videotaped performance showcasing their work in hip-hop and street dance. Two other films will premiere during the gala, one made by Bill Shannon, showcasing what Morgan says is his “beautiful, innovative way of dancing on crutches,” and another from Tzveta Kassabova, whose choreography is strongly influenced by her work as a visual artist. The program will also feature the Dance Place Youth Company, premiering an original work created by some of its teen dancers and led by Dashé Green.
The gala will conclude with a livestream featuring Project ChArma and co-artistic director Ama Law. “Ama Law exemplifies all of the different types of dance that we do and the different communities that we serve, coming together in a single person,” Morgan says, ticking off Law’s experiences with African dancing and drumming, hip-hop, urban and modern dance. Law will perform an excerpt of her work Tides, embellished by “beautiful images that at a live performance would be projected on the back walls or on the floor in the space, but for this performance will be live-mixed into what a viewer is seeing on their two-dimensional screen.”
Morgan suggests the Project ChArma performance could be a harbinger of how dance is presented in the post-pandemic future. “While we all greatly look forward to gathering for live performance again in our beautiful theater, whenever that’s safe and possible, we will forever be changed by this, and will include [different] layers of programming from the conception,” he says. “Whether that’s the possibility of a live performance in our space that also has virtual components, or fully virtual components from the getgo. I don’t think there’s any turning back from this now.”
In October, Dance Place will make its first foray back to live performance with two “Physically Distant Commissions,” both experiments presented off-site and for free. For four consecutive evenings starting on Thursday, Oct. 8, Ronya-Lee will perform, at the Dew Drop Inn, Monumental Bodies, a new work described as investigating “the pain, passion, promise, and particularities that reside in the Black body,” and nodding to Caroline Randall Williams’ poem “My Body is a Confederate Monument.” A new collaborative, dubbed ANC: artist neighbor collective, has organized a “physically distant gathering” or traveling tour on Saturday, Oct. 24, and Sunday, Oct. 25. Conceived by artists in D.C.’s Bloomingdale neighborhood, Show I is described as “a walkable, driveable, scootable, bikeable visual and performance art gallery, with unique happenings at each artist’s home space.”
Dance Place is in good shape to help lead the way forward, despite the setbacks of 2020. “I’d say we’re probably losing 20 percent of our income this year,” Morgan says, noting that nearly all of it is from the cancellation of ticketed live performances. That’s a relatively modest blow compared to so many other performing arts organizations that have been stymied, even strangled, by the ongoing pandemic.
“It hasn’t all been easy or rosy,” Morgan says, “but in general, I am still pretty optimistic. We passed our budget for the fiscal year [that] started September 1. So here we are at the new year, so to speak, and we’re committed to keeping our staff on. We have a significant amount of funding going out to artists, both teaching and performance, in various ways.
“I feel very fortunate that things are pretty good for Dance Place. We’re in a pretty strong position at this point in time — and working hard to make sure it stays that way.”
Dance Place’s free, open-to-all Fortitude Gala is this Friday, Oct. 2, at 6:30 p.m. Visit www.danceplace.org.
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