At the New Rhimes Performing Arts Center, Debbie Allen’s vision reaches new heights

Inside a huge modernist chunk of a building that takes up an entire block near Koreatown in Los Angeles, the force of nature known as Debbie Allen does one of the many things Debbie Allen does the better: lead.

Mind you, she’s not leading one of the many shows she’s led to excellence – Grey’s Anatomy among them. On the contrary, it directs the staff. Where to move things, how the schedule for an upcoming event should go, etc. It’s only been a few weeks since this facility, the 24,000 square foot Rhimes Performing Arts Center, opened; as the chief visionary who brought this space to life, Allen is typically meticulous about every little detail, every movement that happens inside.

And it shows. In the bright and airy waiting room, framed posters evoke defining moments from Allen’s extraordinary life and career: a performance by Alvin Ailey decades ago, his revival of dance teacher magazine from 2011. From the sofas on the first floor, you can look up to the second floor and see more evidence of his keen, discerning eye: brightly colored paintings, men polishing the floors to a sufficiently brilliant shine to hurt your eyes. Arriving before the appointed time, this reporter doesn’t dare interrupt the genius at work – Debbie Allen will join me when Debbie Allen joins me, I suppose – and besides, it’s a rare opportunity to see Allen doing his thing, jumping everyone around her at greatness with a ferocious aplomb that could literally shake the leaves off a tree.

A delivery man walks in with a beautiful arrangement of crimson flowers and places it on the counter of the receptionist’s desk. “Is it for…a Debbie?” Is Debbie here?

“I’m Debbie,” Allen said flatly, evenly, without the slightest trace of shadow (perhaps deserved). She smiles and goes back to…being Debbie. “Okay, where were we? »

That Allen – more energetic and dynamic at 72 than most 30-somethings – is his own host, receptionist, facilities manager and God knows what else on that early April afternoon is unsurprising; In her astounding 50-year career, Allen doesn’t seem particularly clinging to titles, preferring instead to demonstrate what excellence looks like in whatever medium she can.

There’s not enough space here to catalog everything she’s done, but a highlight reel includes winning three Emmys for her choreography work on shows such as Fame and recently Dolly Parton’s Christmas in the Square; choreographed the Oscars four times; direct and perform in more than 40 shows, Family ties in the 80s to Precarious and Scandal and of course, Grey’s Anatomy today. Seven US presidents — eight if you count Biden — have come and gone since she produced movies and TV shows. But with her today, you feel like one of the most important jobs she’s ever had is to be here, right now, getting the Rhimes Performing Arts Center ready for her most important guests. , that is, members of the Los Angeles community who will come here for dance lessons, workshops, artistic development, and most of all, the love of Debbie.

“I work for a purpose greater than myself,” Allen says. “I like what I do.”

Although the name of this establishment is named after her friend and colleague Shonda Rhimes, one of the most important functions of this space is that it is the new official residence of the Debbie Allen Dance Academy (DADA) – the Los Angeles institution that was the training ground for, among other feats, Debbie Allen Hot Chocolate Nutcrackerhis modern and inclusive take on the famous ballet featured in the 2020 documentary Shondaland and Netflix, Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker.

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DADA previous space was in the Crenshaw area of ​​Los Angeles, a beautiful, historic, mostly black and Latino neighborhood full of solid single-family homes on leafy blocks, but where 80% of public school students get a free lunch and unemployment is a few percentage points above the national average. (Not that all of his students are needy; at least a well-off child of very famous parents studied there.) Founded in 2000, DADA, according to its mission statement, aims to “prepare young dancers for a serious career in dance, musical comedy, film and television, while developing the discipline, self-reliance – the confidence and creativity that every individual needs to succeed in life,” and that has long been a lifeline in the community.

“We saved a lot of kids – kids who couldn’t talk to each other because they were from rival gang families,” Allen says. “But at DADA, they could be friends. I remember walking into my studio one day and there were five policemen in the hallway. And I was like, ‘Oh, my God, what happened?’ But they came up to me and said, ‘Miss Allen, would you like to start a program? Because here, our children have nothing. I always gave them a positive path of hope and light and let them know they could do it.

Since the program began, Allen isn’t sure how many people (adults can also take classes at DADA) have passed through those ancient doors, but the impact is immeasurable. Graduates have gone to Broadway, television and film; toured with greats like Mariah Carey; and have been admitted to top-notch schools like Yale. But after so many years, DADA has outgrown its space. Allen had long dreamed of a bigger footprint – a place with high ceilings and room for more classes and programs – and two years ago the dream came true when she broke ground on the old warehouse. which would become the Rhimes Performing Arts Center.

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“Shonda called me one day. She knew we were trying to find a home; we just didn’t have any leeway. And we couldn’t get anyone to co-sign,” Allen says, talking about another of his main activities, fundraising, which also allowed him to open the Debbie Allen College in 2021, which focuses as much on academics as it does on the arts. “She called me. ‘Debby! Meet me here. I said, ‘Okay! I’m coming.’ She walked me through it, and I was gagged.

Rhimes calls Allen “a force of nature” and says she wanted to lend her support because of Allen’s unwavering commitment to raising young people. “His work at DADA is truly life changing and changing outcomes for children,” says Rhimes. “Debbie never refuses a child because of her ability to pay, and she is always looking for different ways to invest in the children. But it does so with limited resources and donations. The old DADA building is small, never enough space for all the dancers, never enough space for all the classes. I wanted to take Debbie’s vision and help elevate it by providing the space these children and DADA deserve.

The Rhimes Performing Arts Center is a state-of-the-art facility with five dance studios, including one equipped for aerial training. Designed by a world renowned architecture and design firm people, the PRPP also has classrooms and a 200-seat auditorium. “When I see a 5-year-old in my Hot chocolate nutcracker dancing, walking in time and being focused, not staring at their mum in the audience, that tells me we’re doing the right thing.

Although PRPP just had its grand opening in March, followed by a star-studded premiere event in April that brought out luminaries such as Billy Porter, Ellen Pompeo, Berry Gordy and of course Rhimes, the lineup is on track. Herbie Hancock and Jennifer Hudson have already dropped by for an event, and 350 people have taken classes recently. PRPP will host conversations with personalities such as Denzel Washington and Ava DuVernay. Allen herself teaches a salsa class in August. Not that PRPP programming is just for celebrities; the conversations with the greats she plans will have an entry fee of around $5. Up-and-coming playwrights and screenwriters will be able to read their work with actors. Allen plans to host events for seniors and seniors, another overlooked and underserved segment of the community. Considering all of this, the center is now the leading black cultural center west of the Mississippi — and it’s just getting started.

“You know, a building is fantastic,” Allen says. “But that doesn’t make a program. It’s the people. I have to keep fundraising to help more people, to keep the standard high, to have first class staff. And it doesn’t come without a lot of hard work. Blood and sweat. That’s how I’ve lived my whole life. We have plenty of room to do a lot. And we will.


Malcolm Venable is senior writer at Shondaland. Follow him on Twitter @malcolmvenable.

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William E. Bennett