Although it appeared to be headed for oblivion, the Bainbridge Junior High School gymnasium is now dancing its way toward a brighter future.
Rob Petres, the 45-year-old co-founder of Ground Zero Dance Company, aims to contribute to "an arts community that's all-inclusive. It needs an off-Broadway, an edgier, much more locally based production of art. [Richmond] is more than the symphony, the ballet and opera. There's more there to experience by not only artists, but patrons and the community."
Ground zero for Petres' vision is the historic Manchester gymnasium, where he plans to kick off the Dogtown Dance Theatre in January, as well as open the building to other performing-arts tenants.
Built in 1939, the gym had basketball courts that often doubled as a dance floor, remembers Eleanor McJilton Thompson, a member of the class of 1958. "I do have fond memories of dancing in the gym. Dancing before school was a real treat … we girls could even dance together, and no one cared or talked about us."
Bainbridge School, which opened in 1915 along with Bellevue and Binford Schools, was populated with sixth- and seventh-graders until 1975, when it closed. The grounds are now the site of a medical building. The gym served a few purposes after the school closed, including as home court for the local Police Athletic League and a community center, but in recent years, the building was abandoned, with broken windows, a leaking roof and general dilapidation.
In 2004, Petres was scouting possible dance locations and saw the gym. It didn't have a for-sale sign, but it was available. His dad, Bob, agreed that the gym was the right space for the guerrilla dance troupe, so Dogtown Dance LLC purchased the building from the city for about $450,000 in July 2005.
Since then, Petres and his cohorts have navigated myriad special-use permits, nonstop construction and restoration issues, and sweat and hands-on toil by company members, friends and volunteers. During the labor, Petres and Ground Zero dancer Kat Legault have become attached to the neighborhood.
"I feel tremors in that community with our project," Legault says. "It's a romantic vision, I think, but it needs to be. I think we really do have the potential to help pull that area up a little bit." For more information on the project, visit groundzerodance.org/gymnasium.html.