Upon moving to Charlotte in 1997, Jacqueline White arrived at NC Dance Theatre excited by the prospect of a growing city with a vibrant dance community. What she found left a lot to be desired.
NC Dance Theatre, later christened Charlotte Ballet, put on plenty of dance performances, but White found little in the way of training — specially, dedicated training for unaffiliated adult dancers.
Dance is an infamously punishing discipline physically, and if a performer hopes for any kind of longevity they need to train consistently.
Additionally, the culture of classes in the dance world is central to how community is built and how networking occurs. There were plenty of training classes available for children at Charlotte-area studios, but opportunities for professional (and personal) development seemed cut off at the roots.
White was hungry to keep training, so in 2004 she and a friend rented space at Spirit Square in Uptown and hired dancers to teach them, sowing the seeds that would eventually grow into Open Door Studios.
Like the city itself, Charlotte’s performing art scene has morphed and changed over the years since Open Door Studios came to be, seeing various and sundry committees and task forces scratch their heads about how to put one foot in front of the other.
In that time, Open Door has been a resilient, resourceful and consistent presence in Plaza Midwood, a space for dancers and theatre artists to train while making and sharing small-scale work.
Open Door has become a household name for local performers while building up a roster of beloved and accomplished teachers offering classes for students of all ages and experience levels.
“Connecting young dancers to different techniques is really important, and not just ballet, modern, jazz and tap … to give students a deeper understanding,” White told Queen City Nerve. “That’s where we start.”
White is careful to articulate that Open Door’s philosophy of “Dance is for everyone” is not about a lack of rigor but rather the opposite. This insistence that excellence and access are not mutually exclusive is at the core of Open Door’s existence.
Open Door Studios finds a new home
From any angle, COVID-19 has been a disaster. Alongside lives lost, communities have fractured around differing views of what the crisis even is, while local economies and independent businesses have been sucker punched.
As much as any others, the performing arts field has been decimated.
According to new statewide labor market data, as of June, the arts, entertainment and recreation industries in North Carolina had lost the greatest percentage of their employees of any industries in the state, with the loss of 10,500 jobs that hadn’t yet been recovered making up 13.6% of employees in those fields statewide.
Technologies like Zoom are a Band-Aid, but it’s hard to maintain morale — or the bottom line — when your livelihood depends on people being in rooms together. So while COVID was great for Amazon and Netflix, it put a lot of performance companies and venues in danger of permanent shutdown.
In the midst of the COVID lockdowns, real-estate redevelopment pushed Open Door out of the space they’d called home for the last decade.
White joked that in 2020 Open Door Studios briefly became “Outdoor Studios.” She expressed gratitude that things have worked out, stating, “We were all forced to adapt and that was a great lesson.”
Eastway Crossing has become a magnet for Charlotte’s indie institutions displaced by rapid growth.
After losing their longtime home in Plaza Midwood in 2020, Open Door Studios joined Tommy’s Pub, Visart Video and Armada Skateshop, among other businesses like the locally owned Dairy Queen franchise that relocated from its popular location in the heart of Plaza Midwood to the unassuming shopping center at the corner of Eastway Drive and Central Avenue.
This piece of real estate might be the perfect example of what makes Charlotte’s east side so special. There is an impressive, and seemingly organic, diversity to the people who work and play there.
There are long-time mainstays like El Potrero Western Wear, Portofino’s Italian Restaurant & Pizzeria and the Atlantic Farmer’s Market sharing space with newer arrivals like Bart’s Mart, The Skrimp Shack and Royal African Cuisine. Local music legends Gina Stewart and Brenda Gambill operate the vegan cafe and coffee shop EastSide Local out of a small courtyard space next to Visart. It’s kind of surreal to experience: a cool strip mall.
While leaving their longtime home might have been painful, Open Door Studios has stumbled into a spot in what has arguably become the hippest corner of the city.
The move to Eastway Crossing has allowed White and her crew to upgrade their space. The new and improved Open Door Studios includes a 3,000-square-foot black-box theater equipped with light and sound capabilities. The space is divided into smaller studios for classes.
Getting to work on a new dance studio in Charlotte
It’s worth noting that while Charlotte’s urban core has a bevy of institutionally programmed performance spaces, small independent theatres outside of the I-277 loop are rare.
The addition of this theater to the local arts ecosystem is a big deal. Small spaces like this are vital to a grassroots performing arts community.
It isn’t just the space that has expanded. Changes to Open Door’s programming are on the docket as well. Classes and workshops will continue as per usual, including a new class focusing on increased accessibility to dance and creative movement for all bodies called Step Together. In addition, the months ahead will include performances and programs from Open Door’s two companies-in-residence: Movement Migration and Baran Dance.
Perhaps the most exciting new development for Open Door is the Choreographic Residency program. This residency provides studio space and time, as well as a small stipend and marketing support for choreographers to develop new work.
White sees the Choreographic Residency as an opportunity for networking and experimentation for choreographers and dancers, as well as a chance to “invite audiences in to see a work in progress and say, ‘Here’s your chance to ask questions,’ to ask what is this about? What technique is this? What spurred this?”
She also sees the program as a relatively low-risk arena for choreographers to experiment and develop work that may still be in its nascent phase, all of which serve the larger goal of Open Door: to cultivate a community around the idea that everyone should have access to excellent dance.
Exploring place in a new space
Megan Payne is the most recent artist to move through the program, sharing her original work PLOW, on July 25. Since completing a Goodyear Arts Residency in 2015, Payne is a fixture in the local dance community, consistently crafting performances that see lush sensuality clash with an equally insistent and critical intelligence.
The tension this creates has developed into a mature style that can stand with any of the best choreographers in the southeast.
Payne took advantage of the hothouse atmosphere of the short Open Door residency to, appropriately, develop a work about place and its effect on our lives.
“Having the space at Open Door to make a new work is pretty rare, especially in Charlotte,” Payne told Queen City Nerve. “There are so many talented artists in the city with not a lot of opportunities to perform or present. Jacque White is helping create space for that.”
Equally appropriate, given Open Door’s focus on networking and cross-pollination, Payne used this residency to welcome a relative newcomer to Charlotte.
Based most recently in Boston, Joy Davis is an accomplished performer by any metric. Since 2015, Davis has been creating work as part of The Davis Sisters, a collaboration with Alex Davis that skips madly and merrily along the razor’s edge between dance, comedy, performance art and media critique.
Commenting on her collaboration with Davis, Payne noted, “PLOW is more of an installation performance with many moving parts that at times feels theatrical, which for me is new, so Joy’s been a great mentor to have in exploring this new ground.”
Collaborations like these are unlikely but fruitful, similar to the strange brew of different communities coming together at Eastway Crossing.
They are what make Charlotte so much more than the prefab monoculture nightmare that some seem intent on inflicting on us.
But is there a way to intentionally let growth be organic?
Perhaps it is Jacqueline White’s background in landscape design, which she studied at North Carolina State University before coming to Charlotte in ’90s, that nurtured her gift for the long view: the ability to plant seeds, exercise patience and allow nature to take its course.
A commitment to custodianship and organic growth are rare these days, but might just be the secret to a city with soul.