Arts & Events » Theater

Dancing Days

Manchester's Dogtown Dance Theatre has finally arrived.

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Ground Zero Dance Company finally has a home. Founded 10 years ago by, among others, choreographer Rob Petres and his wife, Lea Marshall, the company regularly presents its work at venues throughout Richmond. It took five years of looking to find the right place to call home. What they didn't know is that their search would grow into something far bigger.

When Petres and Marshall (who has served for years as Style Weekly's dance writer) first saw the Bainbridge gymnasium building in Manchester in 2005, they knew it was what they were looking for. “It was derelict and all the copper pipes and wire was stolen,” Marshall recalls. “There were holes in the floor and there were pigeons living there and all the windows were broken … and it was great.” A half-decade, many obstacles and much renovation later, the Dogtown Dance Theatre is here.

Built in 1939, the Bainbridge Junior High School gym formerly served the Maury School. Inside the classic revival-style building is institutional construction at its best, featuring soaring arched windows, blond ceramic tile walls and terrazzo floors. But when Rob Petres and his father and business partner, Dr. Bob Petres, first looked at the building, it wasn't on the market. Petres made an offer, bidding against others who wanted to turn the building into condos. Once the offer was accepted the real problems began.

For starters, the building couldn't be developed because there was no parking available and the zoning was for single family, low density housing. It took two and a half years to change that and make a deal with nearby Manchester Medical to obtain the use of an extra parking lot.

Renovation of the building began in earnest in 2008 with Rob Petres heading the project because there were no funds left to hire a general contractor. “It was pretty spooky,” says Petres, whose day job is remodeling kitchens and bathrooms. “I mean, I look at a kitchen, or a bathroom, and I can see the whole project. I couldn't see this. I could see bits and pieces, but I couldn't see the whole as a builder. So I didn't approach it that way. … I just said let's fix that, then let's fix that. I never looked up at the whole thing until the end.”

The results are stunning, with the fine bones of the building left intact. The original pine floors of the gymnasium gleam, offering a 46-by-31-foot stage, delineated with soft goods for ultimate flexibility in staging productions.

Marshall tells the story of how, during the renovation, Manchester residents would stop by to express their delight that the old gym was coming back to life. The well-wishers included a married couple who met there years ago. “We heard a lot from people in the neighborhood about people always wanting to come over and bring great things to Manchester,” Marshall says, “and then either nothing came of it or it was something that didn't really have anything for the neighborhood. The idea of this is to try and engage the local community surrounding the area.”

The hope was to work with high schools to promote the arts through after-school programs and dance camps. As their vision grew, the nonprofit Dogtown Arts Foundation was formed. It will handle the outreach part of the project. Rental space for small businesses that would ideally enhance the artistic or community outreach goals of the organization is also available on the first floor.

In addition to being the resident dance company, Ground Zero Dance will lend expertise to running the theater. Petres' ambition is for the building is to be a connecting place for dancers, choreographers, musicians and artists, the collaboration resulting in a fuller presentation of dance and the performing arts. The artists will have the rare opportunity to work with lights and sound in the actual performance space.   

Petres emphasizes that if CenterStage is Richmond's equivalent to Broadway, Dogtown Dance Theatre is off-Broadway, with perhaps more than one “off.” “It's exactly what Richmond doesn't have,” he says. “CenterStage is great for huge companies, but if you're a local choreographer, that's not affordable; it's not feasible. We're trying to hit the middle ground. I don't want to compete, I want to add. This is also an attempt to get everybody to play together nice and really do something for ourselves as a whole.”

A former home to pigeons has been restored to a place with aspirations as soaring as the building's arched windows. “We have this space,” Marshall says. “Now we sort of open the door and let it fill up.”

The grand opening celebration for the Dogtown Dance Theatre continues May 27-29 with performances of Rob Petres' “Moment of Flight” and “Rope” with works by local, national and international artists.  For  information call 353-9774.

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