Everyone may know everyone in D.C.’s tiny dance world, but few figures are truly ubiquitous. That’s why it was something of a milestone when, three weeks ago, Washington’s biggest dance fan finally put Washington behind him.
Cheles Rhynes isn’t a dancer. In fact, he kind of just fell into the dance scene. A native of Dallas who studied theater at Southwestern University, Rhynes moved to Washington 15 years ago with then-girlfriend Gesel Mason, a dancer who had joined the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange. After starting out with the company as its all-around backstage guy, Rhynes fell in love with the art form. “I do lighting design, and I like the aspect of using more colors and doing more stuff than you can with theater,” he says. “Dance is treated like a stepchild in most cities, but dancers work really hard.”
Rhynes, now 41, has spent the last decade and a half trying to elevate D.C. dance above that stepchild status. As a backstage jack-of-all-trades and a frequent booster, he’s helped seriously advance the local movement scene while cultivating a loyal, familial—and sometimes alienating—vibe among the folks who’ve worked with and for him.
Rhynes, with his weightlifter build and imposing beard, has a reputation for intensity. He doesn’t hesitate to bark instructions—whether it’s at a stagehand in his employ or an audience in his thrall. His clannishness has a flipside, he’ll admit: a willingness to cut off anyone who doesn’t meet his standards.
“There was a point”—in the early 2000s—“when I was doing lighting design for about 85 percent of dance companies in D.C. in one shape or another, as part of their shows or as showcases,” he says. He was the production manager at Joy of Motion’s Jack Guidone Theater during much of that time, and eventually worked at almost every Washington venue that stages dance.
In 1998, Mason and Rhynes formed an eponymous production company as a vehicle for her choreography. He mostly handed the technical stuff, but in one short, particularly direct piece, “How to Watch a Modern Dance Concert,” he was onstage reading text to accompany her movement.
After noticing there weren’t many events around the country honoring dancers’ accomplishments, Mason/Rhynes Productions started the MetroDC Dance Awards in 2000 to honor local performance; the event, which is now run by another group, is essentially the D.C. dance scene’s equivalent of the Helen Hayes Awards. Two years later, Mason/Rhynes began an annual evening of dance performances at Carter Barron Amphitheater to join the music and theater that already occurred there.
Although Rhynes’ contributions to local dance have been mostly backstage, he has one of the scene’s more confident stage presences. In 2006, he and Mason began organizing “Late Night,” an after-hours performance series featuring alcohol and risqué material. By design, these shows are free-for-alls, but Rhynes is always in his element as the evening’s MC. He’ll harangue the audience with a no-bullshit sense of authority, riff about pornography, and generally appear to get drunker as the night progresses. He’s been known to do shots with a dance company before they go onstage. Rhynes says the drunkenness thing is partially an act to loosen up the crowd. (The series is still around; the next “Late Night” takes place this Saturday at Joe’s Movement Emporium.)
Talk to members of the city’s dance community about Rhynes, and there isn’t much middle ground. “Cheles has been one of the best, most loyal, most enduring friends I have had in my life,” says Paul Emerson, a co-founder of the defunct CityDance Ensemble and the artistic director of the new Company E. “He’s one of those people who, if he called and said ‘I need you here as fast as you can get here,’ I’d find a way to get there.”
That doesn’t mean Rhynes isn’t a hard employer when he’s managing a production. Brian Buck, a local dancer who’s currently the facilities coordinator at the Dance Exchange, isn’t a huge fan. “I worked for him, but was fired because he said I wasn’t ‘family’ enough for him,” says Buck.
Rhynes doesn’t deny he’s hard to work for, but says it’s part of a larger picture. “I come from an old-school way of doing production,” he said. “I say going into it: ‘You’re going to get trained right, under fire, so that no matter where you go, it won’t faze you.’”
But Rhynes’ days as a D.C. mainstay are over. Three weeks ago, he began a job as production manager at Tampa’s Straz Center for the Performing Arts. Although he’s keeping his house in Capitol Heights and will return to work some shows, Rhynes said the offer—an institutional gig at one of the Southeast’s biggest venues—was too good to turn down.
He left quietly, uncharacteristically tiptoeing out of town without much noise or celebration.