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Deborah Riley appears on stage holding a red umbrella. Small stars and fish, twinkling in the stage light, hang from its points, as if parts of a miniature mobile. But soon dancers run diagonally across the stage in a cloddish, troll-like manner; one by one, the fiendish characters snatch each glittering treasure, and finally, the umbrella. Riley stands alone; her erect Egyptian stance melts as her chest caves in. She is adrift.

The ensemble of dancers reappears onstage with Riley. One after another they perform a slow, reaching movement phrase that spirals up from the floor as they speak:

It was a time of turmoil

I was sick in my body and in my mind.

I couldn’t work…

I had no place to go…

I didn’t know anyone at the shelters

I had to get everything all over again.

These are not just dancers talking, nor are they simply the words of D.C. choreographer Riley. They are the laments of several local women—chronically mentally ill and formerly homeless—who inspired Riley’s powerful work, Sanctuary. The piece will be performed this weekend, when Deborah Riley Dance Projects is presented at its home base, Dance Place.

Riley, who is a resident choreographer and teacher at Dance Place, has been creating charged, poignant, in-your-face portraits of women since she moved to the District in the late 1980s. She is part of a small revolution in postmodern dance, one that rejects abstraction, sterility, and the sundry minimalist trappings of postmodernism. This band of rebels has revitalized the old idea that modern dance can connect to the community and to its social problems. Artists like Riley, Liz Lerman, Anna Halprin, and Bill T. Jones, among others, have embraced the everyday heroism of people dealing with AIDS, mental illness, substance abuse, and the trauma of incest. In movement workshops, they work with vulnerable people and try to give voice to their pain, their triumph, their resignation, their peace.

The process involved in making social-issue art—mining other people’s most intimate miseries—is of course not without its detractors. Its pre-eminent nemesis is New Yorker dance critic Arlene Croce, who created a stir when she lambasted Jones’ piece Still/Here a few years ago, a work that was spawned from workshops with terminally ill people. Reacting to the idea of the production (she never actually sat through it), Croce coined the term “victim art,” which, she concluded, wasn’t real art at all.

“I’ve had people say that, too, that my work is victim art,” Riley says. “People say, ‘Is it art when you put these kinds of issues on stage?’ My work is about life, and some people seem to think you can’t critique it,” she adds. “As far as I’m concerned, you can say this didn’t work or this is awful. But to challenge its existence is ludicrous.”

Riley has moved from creating dances after working with women in pain to making dances exclusively for women in pain. For her, women’s self-awareness, catharsis, and recovery are becoming as important as choreography. She has just completed a new piece that won’t be on the bill this weekend. Called Fears and Affirmations/Recovery From Sexual Abuse, the piece will be performed just for incest and rape survivors in and around D.C. In conjunction with the D.C. Rape Crisis Center, Riley will use the performance of this piece—and another dance she created a few years ago, Core Memories—as catalysts in the workshop settings. “The women can more immediately get to their feelings watching the piece than through talking,” Riley says.

“I was a little skeptical of this three years ago,” says Donna Alexander, director of counseling and advocacy at the D.C. Rape Crisis Center. “I wasn’t much on dance. I didn’t know what she could do for these women. But she made a believer out of me.”

Alexander has brought Riley and her dancers to various groups of incest and rape survivors. In the past, the dancers have performed Core Memories, a piece about healing the wounds of sexual abuse that begins on a wrenching note. Segments of the dance are punctuated by movements that symbolize grief and torpor, as well as obsessive-compulsive and self-mutilating behaviors. “Sometimes it gets very emotional, which is why I always have counselors in there,” Alexander says. “Sometimes women have to leave during the performance and talk to someone. But they are always able to re-enter the group and dance, draw, and talk. The dance often comes up later in counseling….They feel [Deborah] is speaking for them.”

What Riley does is dangerous, from every point of view. The women she deals with are often fragile, and most need emotional caretaking and supervision during the workshops. Riley herself becomes emotionally exhausted and has to be careful to take time between projects. Artistically, she enters a minefield time and again: With social issues, there is the temptation to be heavy-handed, preachy, patronizing, even pitying. In less than masterful hands, such hot material completely overpowers the work. And as viewed on videotape, Core Memories does seem to suffer under the immense weight of the material. But none of the probable pitfalls apply to Sanctuary, a lyrical, loving, and fierce testament to women who struggle daily to keep themselves together.

“Deborah did really well reaching our women,” says Kathy West, residents’ advocate of Housing Opportunities for Women, a nonprofit organization that provides housing for D.C. women with myriad problems, from mental illness to substance abuse to full-blown AIDS. “Deborah and her dancers worked with our residents in areas they don’t like to get into. A lot of them isolate so much.” West said the workshops, conducted about a year-and-a-half ago, were voluntary. “We didn’t know how they were going to go.” But in the end, quite a few of the women who participated went to the debut performance of Sanctuary at Dance Place last year. “I heard a lot of positive feedback from those who went,” West says.

Deborah Riley is hard to pin down. The 46-year-old choreographer is lean and long-muscled, with somewhat classical features and short, buzzed hair. Her austere, almost geometrical presence can be quite commanding. But her angular asceticism coexists with warmth and whimsy. It is these complementary aspects that make her approachable and

believable, and easy to watch. Her dancing is just as complex as her persona: precise and poetic, evocative and stripped down, literal (like the shelter of the umbrella in Sanctuary) and emblematic (dancers representing consciousness in Core Memories).

For years, Riley was a New York postmodern dancer whose biggest concern was whether her European tours with Douglass Dunn and Dancers, a well-known troupe headed by an experimentalist with a sense of humor, would interfere with the performances she scheduled with longtime collaborator Diane Frank. She had more work and better gigs than most modern dancers in New York. But a few things were missing.

Riley moved to D.C. in 1987 because she fell in love with a woman who was then a dancer and is now a social worker. Professionally, Riley approached the move as a tabula rasa. After spending many years performing mostly other people’s dances, she tentatively went about finding her own voice.

“For me, moving to D.C. was such a positive thing in so many ways,” Riley says as she sits in the lobby of Dance Place on a recent sunny afternoon. “I left the insular tunnel vision of the dance world….When I came here I had to evaluate what I wanted to do. It was important for me to represent women in a way that I didn’t think they were being represented on stage or in society either.”

Enter Carla Perlo, director of Dance Place. Time and again, Perlo has demonstrated an ability to pick out diamonds in the rough. Perlo saw Riley’s potential as a significant voice on the local scene. According to Riley, Perlo offered her more responsibility each year as a teacher, administrator, and most significantly, choreographer. Riley blossomed, discovering that some of her best work would also act as a conduit for women’s voices that were rarely heard.

Riley wants to work with new populations: She’d like to make a work for people who have never danced before. She’d also like to do a workshop with gay and lesbian teens. Riley has not explored gay themes explicitly in her work, although she considers her dances, which are performed exclusively by women, to be “gay-friendly.”

Whether she is dealing with gay teens or a formerly homeless woman with AIDS, the most important elements of Riley’s projects are comfort and safety. In the workshop settings, Riley—who is not a therapist and is not always accompanied by counselors—must be ever vigilant to ensure that potentially vulnerable people are not feeling threatened or exploited. “I try very hard to make it safe so people don’t feel like they’re being assaulted,” Riley says. “I have to take responsibility for the whole atmosphere, and I always bear that in mind.”

By the time a workshop is finished, though, some beleaguered women have given Riley their most precious gift—a piece of themselves to take back to her dance studio on 8th Street NE. There, she has the audacity and the artfulness to mold their desperation and grace into something perilous and glorious and new.


Deborah Riley Dance Projects perform at Dance Place April 13 and 14. For information, call (202) 269-1600.