Beth Furgurson Photo
Rob Petres, Ground Zero Dance
The selectors said: With artistic praise on the local and national stages, Petres' work is consistently exceptional and full of vision. His leadership in forging a contemporary dance community is exemplified by his creating a physical space to house that community at the Bainbridge Gymnasium in the Manchester historic district, which will provide rehearsal and performance venues for Richmond's independent artists and other companies. He teaches diverse populations throughout the city, fostering the education, awareness and promotion of modern dance.
Rob Petres grew up as the son of a doctor and a nurse in Mechanicsville and Varina. In school, he was an athlete, participating in track, soccer, wrestling and swimming. And seven nights a week for about 15 years, he was a self-described club kid.
Petres danced so long and often that when a Shockoe Bottom club was closed as a haven for drug use, officials cited Petres as a negative example. The owner scoffed and exclaimed, "I can't get that kid off the floor for a drink; he definitely isn't buying or selling any drugs."
Petres recalls, "They couldn't get their heads around that, the authorities. I danced so much, I just had to be on something."
He went to work for a concrete company in North Carolina and for private parties, he tried exotic dance. His then-girlfriend broke up with him, and, crushed, he quit concrete and returned to Richmond. In his despair, an idea came: Let's see if there's something serious to this dance thing. At 22, he started classes at the Richmond Ballet and the Swift Creek Academy of Dance.
Within a year, under the tutelage of the academy's Jolie Long, he was teaching jazz and choreography classes. To earn more money as a teacher, he took up further studies at VCU.
There, he met Ray Schwartz and Christie Abeling. They decided in 1993, rather than leave Richmond in pursuit of a perfect dance position, to start their own organization. Steve's House Dance Collective reinvigorated Richmond's contemporary dance scene and earned a Pollak Prize in 1998. By 2000, still without a member named Steve ("We had to answer that question a lot"), the group divided. From it, Ground Zero emerged.
Among Petres' original pieces are the mesmerizing Rope and the vigorous, fantastic Moments of Flight, which requires performers to dash along a wall while attempting to escape from their world. Petres says he didn't need dancers, but brave people: At auditions, "If their eyes were wide as saucers, then they weren't going to make it."
Momentous events have occurred in recent weeks; in August, Petres and his colleague and wife, Lea Marshall, became parents to daughter Rowan, and the Dogtown Dance Theater in Manchester is nearing occupancy. "There's so much talent here that slips away because there's not enough reason for them to stay," he says. "So, we'll see what happens."