City Paper is not for tourists
No matter how beautiful, no matter how crude, every dance ends—a truth underlined at the end of May with the closing of the Ballet Center of Washington.
The school existed for 11 years, but you could have driven by daily and never noticed the sign announcing its presence at 2801 Connecticut Ave. NW. You could as easily miss the building itself. Originally single-family dwellings before becoming apartment houses and then dance studios, 2801 and its twin at 2803 suggest an old dancer’s feet, elegant but battered. Eyebrow dormers arch skyward above eaves crumbling like stale cheese. Ivy covers the facades, and wrist-thick Virginia creeper vines have colonized the stonework. The shallow front yard is a semi-shorn tangle.
The lease calls for the school to maintain the grounds, but it’s been a while since director Irene Klores felt like pounding cash down that rathole. Even so, as she conducted a tour, she collected litter.
“I feel terrible seeing the place like this, but what can I do?” asked Klores. At 41, she moves with an edgy grace despite the rig ors of parenting—her twins, Steven and Molly, are 5—and the restraint of an elastic bandage.
“Last week, in class, I sprained my ankle for the first time in eight years,” she explained. “What does that mean, when the ballet school owner sprains her ankle the week before she’s closing down?”
Angling through a narrow hall past pianist Harold Probus and adult students preparing for class, Klores pointed the way into a rehearsal room. A piece of posterboard displayed pictures of the 80 microballerinas in the center’s class of 1990. Beside them, a black-and-white print showed tiny dancers en pointe. Klores noted one well-positioned appendage.
“You can tell a dancer’s potential at a young age,” she said. “That is an excellent foot—of course, she’s looking at it, but it’s an excellent foot. I can’t say I want my daughter, Molly, to be a professional dancer; it’s a curse. When you put those point shoes on, you acquire something that you carry for the rest of your life.”
The smaller room leads to the main studio, built when the National Ballet occupied the premises during 1962-74. The building at 2803 served as a school where young dancers could satisfy basic educational requirements while focusing on their real studies, which took place in the studios at 2801.
(The main studio is a story in itself. After balletomane Jean Riddell helped create the National, she persuaded husband Richard, a real estate mogul, to buy the two Connecticut Avenue buildings. Built in 1919, they were designed by architect Frank Russell White, known for many D.C. residences and apartment buildings. Acquiring 2801 first, the Riddells built the addition, outfitting it so unknowns and stars alike would have the correct setting in which to practice. “When I put in the floor the first time, I was dumb,” Riddell, whose family still owns and manages the properties, said in a phone interview. “It was too hard, and the dancers protested. So we put a second floor on top of the original, and it was built so that the boards bend a little. It’s a wonderful floor.”)
The studio walls are perforated east, south, and west with high-set windows through which a warm, oblique light oozes onto the honey-colored oak floor. “It’s held together with pegs, and it’s beautiful to dance on,” said Klores. “Margot Fonteyn danced here. Nureyev was here. There is history in these barres.”
Some of that history is notorious. After the National decamped to the Kennedy Center in 1974, the Riddells reconverted 2803 to apartments. They leased 2801 to a balletmaster later convicted of molesting his charges. The studios had been vacant for two years in 1984 when Klores and other area dancers decided to start a ballet academy. Klores had spent 10 years dancing professionally off-Broadway, as a member of a metropolitan regional company called Rhythm Ballet, and teaching in the Montgomery County schools.
A proper ballet studio is a snazzy barn, high-ceilinged and free of pillars, with vast mirrors in which dancers can dissect their inadequacies. Torture chambers are not cheap to build, but Klores and company were willing to do so if necessary. They had $20,000 in loans and credit lines ready to put into construction, but as soon as Klores saw the old National Ballet studio, she knew she and her partners wouldn’t have to endure a renovation.
“It was musty and dusty, but it had this excellent floor—it was designed by Oleg Tupin, who was with the Ballet Russe—and we didn’t have to buy mirrors or barres or any of the usual equipment,” she said. “The geography was excellent—on a main thoroughfare, oodles of people going to and from the National Zoo, a Metro station only one-and-a-half blocks away.”
Still, the start-up was no tap dance. Klores and her husband, Bruce Klores, lived on Kalorama Road; every day Irene trekked the avenue to the school, and one month they had to sell Bruce’s BMW to pay the rent. To keep peace with tenants in the 10 apartments next door at 2803, landlord Robert Arthur, who is Jean Riddell’s son-in-law, restricted teaching hours. There were the uptown rents, the utilities, the insurance. Teachers earned $30 to $35 an hour, and Klores insisted on live music in performance and rehearsal; to the last, the center had four pianists on call at $14 an hour. The monthly nut was about $6,000.
“If I were just a person who wanted to run a school and had not been a performer, it might be easier. People pay $14 an hour for aerobics, but the most you can get for 90 minutes of ballet instruction is $11,” said Klores. To promote the school, she and her partners put ads in the paper. They hung notices on bulletin boards in every bagel place on Connecticut Avenue. They leafletted the Metro station.
“We had classes for all ages, including senior citizens,” Klores said. “In a good year, we grossed $125,000.”
Enrollment began with five kids dragooned from a friend’s day care center. Adult classes took place mornings and evenings, with afternoons reserved for children. The new school had to buck the magnetic attractions of the Washington School of Ballet over on Wisconsin Avenue NW and Mary land Youth Ballet in Bethesda.
But Klores wasn’t aiming to foster a coven of prima ballerinas. “We basically were an alternative for children,” she said. “If a child has the desire and love for dance, I believe that child should be able to dance.”
Classes grew, reaching 125 students in a good semester, but one by one, Klores’ partners faded. By 1990, she was the school’s sole operator. Around that time, the end began to loom. Property manager Arthur warned of major changes impending in the status of the two big buildings, the studio, and a smaller adjoining townhouse—nearly 13,000 square feet of prime real estate. The figure $3 million floated in the conversational air. Poised for the sale, Arthur emptied the apartments at 2803, but the big deal didn’t crystallize.
“He was like the boy who cried wolf,” said Klores.
The school hung on, but its neighbor became a hostel for rats and birds and the occasional squatter. Struggling for survival, Klores proposed to remake the complex into a music, art, and dance center, which would have required a million bucks she didn’t have. Meantime, the Woodley Park Historic District was created, providing her with another tactic—historic landmark status for the building. When that idea tanked, Klores considered relocating, but couldn’t make the break. In January, Arthur began hectoring her to pack up. Klores demurred; she had a semester to finish, with students who had paid tuition. But eventually she faced the facts.
“I finally decided that if I couldn’t be here, I didn’t want to be anywhere,” she said. “I can’t replace this. I come to work and I get to listen to live classical music all day. No studio can replace this studio.”
As Klores spoke, instructor Ruodolph Kharatian was leading an adult class. The floor resonated with the slapstomp of feet in motion. Pianist Probus repeated Russian musical figures while the crisply muscled Kharatian demonstrated, then walked among his pupils, here adjusting an ankle, there a pelvis, scrutinizing with a predator’s detached interest.
In the hallway, a row of pictures sported gaps, like a smile missing teeth. “You can tell the end is coming; people are starting to take their pictures down,” said Klores. “People are walking around like there’s been a death in the family.”
She steered the tour through 2803. The interior was a symphony of decay: dead leaves, plaster shards, fragments of former tenants’ lives, real estate company signs. At the rear, sunlight blasted across the All Souls Memorial Church parking lot to explode on the apartments’ glassed-in porches. Up front, ivy invaded the windows, and on the third story, the dessicated remains of a long-dead bird curled on the floor.
About to leave the woebegone building, Klores gently closed and latched a stray French door, muffling the sound that bustled up from the street. “I’m looking at this eviction as a way of seeing different avenues,” she said in the sudden silence. “I’m embracing motherhood. I’m going to go into another area of my life. Saying goodbye is hard, but I also want to stick my head out the window and scream with glee.”