Jeanne Ruddy’s dream of converting an 1850s stables in Spring Garden into a Philadelphia dance hub is approaching reality.
“We’ve been at this for 20 years, and it’s been my baby,” she said during a recent walk-through of what’s known as the Performance Garage. “But it’s taken the baby a long time to grow up.”
The Garage is in the midst of a two-phase fund-raising campaign. So far, it has raised $2.1 million, including a $500,000 Cultural Corridors grant from the City of Philadelphia and $1 million from the Redevelopment Assistant Capital Program of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
The renovated downstairs opened in November 2016. Now comes the upstairs: The second phase of fund-raising seeks $300,000 to help baby grow all the way up.
How will baby get to the final number? The usual ways, including private donations and naming opportunities for the lobby, dressing room, chairs, and a new state-of-the-art tech booth.
What will it mean for Philadelphia’s dance world? The plan is for the finished complex to offer a one-stop shop where dancers and companies can work on their art and broaden their audience. Yoga, wellness services, and even physical therapy may also be available at one central dance hub.
A ‘Who’s Who’ of local dance
Ruddy has owned and operated the Performance Garage on Brandywine Street since 2000, when she and spouse Victor Keen bought it. Slowly, through fund-raising and performing, she has been able to renovate the spacious downstairs rooms, host dance concerts by a diverse mix of local dance companies, and offer classes, workshops, and rehearsal space for companies and resident artists.
That includes emerging and established artists, such as BalletX, the Kulu Mele African Dance and Drum Ensemble, Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers, Dancefusion, SHARP Dance Company, and Philadanco.
National and international companies, such as Lucinda Childs, the Netherlands Dance Company, and what was then the Merce Cunningham Company, have passed through.
Since the downstairs has reopened, more than 30,000 dancers and dance enthusiasts have come through. It’s a busy place.
“When it’s full of dancers and people,” Ruddy says, “it’s really animated: We have ballet classes here, we have hip-hop classes, we have Irish step-dance classes, modern dance classes, we have Egyptian classes, we have African with Kulu Mele every Saturday morning, and then Zumba in the evenings.”
You might see former Pennsylvania Ballet member Alexei Borovik teaching ballet classes. Or Nora Gibson, director of Nora Gibson Contemporary Ballet, working up a new performance piece. Her company is the inaugural participant in DanceVisions, a performance residency program that gives one dance company three free weeks of rehearsal time to develop a dance production that will then run for a week in the Performance Garage Theater.
The Garage is a building with personality, with a history. In the mid-19th century, it was called Central Stables, a horse stable and carriage house serving the opulent “Millionaires Row” of grand houses on and adjoining Spring Garden Street. In a later life, it was an auto repair garage.
“When we first saw it,” Ruddy says, “this building was old, graffiti-defaced, all bricked-in, pigeons everywhere, crack needles on the sidewalk. You couldn’t even tell that there were doors. Silly us, we decided to go ahead and buy it.” Nearly two decades later, the improvements continue: “We didn’t have summer AC until 18 months ago.”
Moving on up
The undeveloped second and third floors, 2,000 square feet of them, are next.
They represent the challenge facing any dance entrepreneur: You either don’t have the space, or, if you do, you have to make it work for dance.
You have to repair and reinforce the roof, insulate the rooms, install code-compliant elevators and stairways (the 1850s-era stairs are, shall we say, adventuresome), HVAC, bathrooms, plus wiring, plumbing, and flooring. Ruddy also plans to include a “white box” space to rent out.
She envisions a worlds of uses. Pointing out the distressed brick, the winter light falling across the old-time rafters, joists, and roof supports, Ruddy says, “You could have services here for dancers, such as yoga, Pilates, gyrotonics, physical therapy, or a wellness center.
“The dancers could come up here and use those services,” she says, “and the rental income from these spaces could help the Performance Garage, which is a 501(c)3, sustain itself. We could have it all here under one roof.”
As a dancer, choreographer, and arts entrepreneur, Ruddy has impeccable credentials. A principal dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company from 1977 to 1986, she formed her own company in New York, danced on Broadway, taught at the Ailey School and Juilliard, then moved to Philadelphia with Keen.
Among her triumphs has been her emergence from a battle with cancer, reflected in her memorable 2000 dance Significant Soil (title from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets); her ability to weather the economic downturn a decade ago; and the work of her own company, Jeanne Ruddy Dance (2000-12).
She moves with the grace of a person who has courted grace all her life, and her eyes spark with pride, both for what she has achieved and for what could be. “We want to nurture dance artists throughout their careers, in all aspects of those careers,” she says. “Everything for the dancers.”