When Ken Kaiser was searching for a new space for his dance school, he wasn’t imagining 12,000 square feet, four studios, two offices, dressing rooms and a gift shop. But luckily for Washington Contemporary Ballet — and its new Doris Kaiser Performing Arts Academy — that’s what he found in an unlikely Lakewood strip mall.
Sandwiched between beauty salons near the Regal Cinema, the new WCB digs can now do two things its director has been wanting to do for a long time: offer more kinds of dance to a more diverse population, especially the military.
Even better, Kaiser’s main rehearsal studio is now exactly as big as the Mount Tahoma High School stage his company performs on — great timing for WCB’s upcoming spring repertory show.
“We’d been looking for a year for something with the right price, size and exposure,” said Kaiser, 10-year director of the 28-year-old Washington Contemporary Ballet. “But the main thing was the demographic. I wanted to build a diverse group of students and offer easy access to the military. That’s really important to me.”
But Kaiser didn’t think he’d find quite that many square feet. The property that WCB signed a 10-year lease on used to be an indoor golf course, so the property stretches back from the storefront a long way. It fits several large rehearsal studios (including one Kaiser intends to convert to a black-box theater for in-house performances), a couple of dressing rooms, an enormous storage area out back, two offices, and a dance/gift shop in front, and because it is zoned as warehouse space, the price is affordable.
It’s the location, though, that Kaiser really likes. For 12 years, WCB had worked out of a studio tucked away off South 56th Street. Kaiser said not only was it hard to find, it was very cramped, with support columns right in the middle of the main rehearsal studio. They moved to temporary quarters on West 27th Street in University Place while looking for something closer to JBLM. With one son having served, military families are close to his heart, Kaiser said.
The new space also gives WCB the ability to offer more types of dance: tap, jazz, hip hop, modern, flamenco. They’ll also be able to expand their dance classes for kids who have special needs, and potentially start classes in musical theater, yoga and instrumental music. WCB isn’t just ballet any more.
“It provides a positive outlet for kids,” Kaiser said. “That’s what I’m all about.”
WCB’s new building is called the Doris Kaiser Performing Arts Academy, after Kaiser’s late mother — a board decision to honor a woman who raised five sons who all became ballet directors.
Not that everything has been easy in the new venue: WCB has had to replace three HVAC systems and put in new partition walls, sprung dance floors and more, which meant the company couldn’t move in until January. But it’s just in time for the spring repertory concert, which features WCB favorite “Nevsky,” a ballet choreographed by founder Kay Engelert to Prokofiev’s anguished score about a 13th-century Russian hero who saved his country from invasion.
As the company rehearses a scene, Kaiser watches from the big studio’s mirrored wall. Overhead the warehouse ceilings soar 18 feet up to black beams; the newly-built plywood floors and drywall are still exposed.
“I didn’t think I’d be able to afford this much square footage,” he said. “But with dance, you want as big as you can get.”