INTERVIEW: Dance Place’s Celebrate Deborah Highlights 30 Year Career in DC

Dance Place’s Celebrate Deborah Highlights 30 Year Career in DC
with interview conducted/edited by Taryn Brown

Dance Place was founded in 1978 by Carla Perlo and Steve Bloom as an educational and performing arts company. It was most likely unforeseen that nearly 40 years later it would be a viable epicenter of dance in the District of Columbia. Its history as a nonprofit business model includes providing dance education, performance opportunities, culturally conservative and avant-garde programming, and the completion of a thriving arts park. Deborah Riley joined the organization three decades ago and has since climbed the ranks to Co-Director (she began as a faculty member and artist-in-residence). Riley has received many accolades in her career, including funding from the NEA Choreographer’s Fellowship Program, the Distinguished Alumni in Fine Arts award from Ohio University, and having been one of the first Local Commissioning Grants from the Kennedy Center. Riley will retire from her position at Dance Place this year.

She will certainly leave some large pants (or more aptly, leotards) to fill at Dance Place when she retires in 2017. Surely she was instrumental in making Dance Place the institution of success it has become today. Without her, we wouldn’t have a space for dance that serves the community with vast educational and outreach programs, performance series, and professional opportunities for dance enthusiasts and professionals.

We caught up with her to discuss her career thus far, and to check-in on future plans.

DC Dance Journalism Project: I would like to start off with some of your first memories, or first impulses to study dance.

Deborah Riley:

Well, a lot of my direction started when I was a child, and I loved to make up dances and make up movement. I loved making little dances…loved, loved, loved doing that. Then as a high school student, I did high school level dance…  marching band, dance team, and musical theater. But no one ever told me what could happen after that. I didn’t have anybody in my life that said “in dance you can do these things….” When I went to undergraduate school at Ohio University, I went as an education major, and then I saw a sign while walking down the street that said “Orchesis Dance Club Meets Tonight.” I walked in at the appointed time, and there were all these clusters of dancers…and they were all very focused on doing something together, and I asked if I could join, and they said “oh yeah sure.” They didn’t know anything about me, how I could move, anything at all. They said, “really to belong you need to take Modern Dance 101 and Phys Ed (Physical Education) to be part of this.” So I signed up! The next year, was when the university created a school of dance. So I was in the first class of people in that program. To me, that was just such a fortuitous coming together of something that was really important to my mind, but had no direction, and [I] was able to find a place for myself.

Let’s fast forward a bit. How do you think working with Douglas Dunn informed your choreography, performance, teaching…or certain influences from that professional relationship.

Deborah Riley:

Big influence. I was introduced to that company through my good friend from college, Diane Frank. Diane was dancing with Douglas and invited me to a class that they had, and I went to the performances that she was in. Then he started a new project and invited me to audition for that project. At the same time I studied at the Cunningham studio, and I had taken classes elsewhere in New York. I was very influenced by the Cunningham classes, sensibility, I saw a lot of Merce’s work.

What engaged me was that it was thinking and dancing at the same time. It’s a great challenge on a body level, and it’s a great challenge intellectually. Because in both of those scenarios you really have to have your wits about you. And I loved that challenge.

When I started making work, I was influenced by my mentor. I made work that was akin to, in the spirit of, not replicating, but in the spirit of Dunn and Cunningham. Diane and I had a collaboration for about 13 years.

When I moved to DC, I wanted to take a new direction and find my own voice. Finding my own voice went to another time, before I moved to New York and was also making dances. So, I think my way of moving, thinking, and teaching evolved over time. And changed quite a bit. I think that’s a healthy thing to do. I think it’s healthy to find one’s own voice. And not feel like you have to replicate or carry on someone else’s voice.

Some of the ways that’s changed and has evolved for me, is finding MY meaningfulness in dance. Everyone has meaningfulness in their dance making. I had a lot of projects influenced by issues or ideas.

What are a few things that are full and meaningful to you in dance? A few words or images, or things you find yourself gravitating toward frequently?

Deborah Riley:

What I continue to find interesting, engaging, and evolving about any dance is movement invention. That really goes back to my early interests. It just fascinates me.

When I look at work, I’m interested in a personal voice, from anybody. What is that person saying? What am I saying? Those relationships could be in a narrative way, a non-narrative way, or completely abstract. What is the relationship going on here? That’s meaningful to me.

You came to DC in 1987. What have you seen come and go in dance? How would you describe the DC dance scene?

Deborah Riley:

A real growth of opportunities. Those opportunities come from the creation of space, quite literally. You can’t have dance without space. Which means dancers can stay and make a home and make this their base, and I think Dance Place has been a big contributor to that. The other thing that I see is…dancers who talk (incorporate text), and we also have a lot of repertory companies. There are a lot of dancers doing great work, and a lot of beautiful dancers. The other thing I’ve noticed is a proliferation of more professionalized world dance practitioners. That’s been a fantastic thing to see.

How has Dance Place played a role in that development and sustainment?

Deborah Riley:

I think it’s played a role in sustaining it because that has always been our mission: a wide diversity of dance voices, background, ethnicity, points of view, forms…That was always Dance Place’s goal. Even when that was not a nameable thing, before the term multiculturalism was used, that’s what Dance Place has been used for.

What is next on the horizon for you?

Deborah Riley:

I will continue to teach modern classes in the community, working with the Studio Theatre Conservatory and Arts for the Aging in Montgomery County…love to engage with all of those constituents in order to problem solve, discover, heal, and enrich lives.

I’m feeling excited about my next steps. I’ll be sad to leave in some respects. It’s a good time in my life, the organization’s life, and for me personally. It’s been a gift to have all my various roles at Dance Place-learning, personal growth, artistic home, etc., 30 years of my life have gone by quickly and I’m very grateful.

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Celebrate Deborah will feature choreography created by Deborah Riley set on local Washington, DC dance performers. Special performing guests will also include Douglass Dunn and partner, Grazia Della Terza, from New York City. A reception will follow the event. Tickets are $100 and can be purchased at www.danceplace.org/performances/celebrate-deborah/