Driving down West Trinity Place in downtown Decatur, one might zip right by the Beacon Hill Arts Center without even noticing it. But among members of the metro Atlanta dance community, the squat, nondescript brick complex has long been a haven, even a beacon, for practicing artists, choreographers and performers.
At the end of this year, that all changes when the city of Decatur will close the arts center in order to renovate and repurpose the building.
Decatur Assistant City Manager Lyn Menne says the complex will be primarily for the Police Department but will also house the school system’s administrative offices. The city also plans to convert the dance studio into an expanded gymnasium and to open a second recreation center in January. The latter, a separate building, will have a large room with a sprung floor. Menne says it’s possible that that room, able to be divided into three smaller spaces, could be used for performance.
To mark the transition, Beacon Dance, the center’s resident dance company, will present “Closing the Space,” a free concert dubbed “part celebration, part requiem,” at the center tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m. The performance will feature choreography by Beacon Dance Artistic Director D. Patton White, music by Jon Ciliberto and an installation by visual artist Martha Whittington. The event will expand upon the site-specific “deus ex machina,” presented recently at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, and will allow the community to commemorate Beacon Dance’s 25-year history in the space.
While the city of Decatur looks ahead, many dancers and choreographers, some of whom have been using the space for more than two decades, are remembering and feeling nostalgic.
“The building is just easy, easy and welcoming,” says choreographer and longtime Decatur resident Jerylann Warner. “It has this aura about it, like it’s frozen in time.” She begins to tear up when she talks about the many hours she and her company, Gathering Wild, have spent in the Beacon Hill studio, including that spent rehearsing her work “The Sutra Project.” It will be performed at 7 Stages theater tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m. “The bulk of my work was created there,” Warner says. “I think that’s 75 percent of making work, just showing up and having a place to go.”
White, of Beacon Dance, agrees. “If there’s one thing that sums up what Beacon has stood for, it’s work: the work of dance artists, the work of training dancers and creating new dance. It’s about quality and craft.”
When asked what they will miss most about the space, both White and Warner point to its accessibility. Fueled by its mission to provide low-cost rehearsal and performance space for anyone willing to put in the effort, Beacon Hill gave many artists the chance to realize their potential.
With the coming of the new year, other local arts events and organizations will have to relocate, and many are uncertain where they will go. “Breaking Ground,” a concert of new dance performed as part of the Decatur Arts Festival, has been held at Beacon Hill since the early 1990s, and its organizers are looking at other venues. White, who curates the concerts, says the new Decatur Recreation Center and the Performing Arts Center at Decatur High School are being considered.
The Decatur School of Ballet and the Decatur Civic Chorus, both of which have been at Beacon Hill for almost 30 years, are probably the arts groups most affected by the closing. Decatur School of Ballet owner Ron Everett says he’s grateful to the city for making the center affordable to local artists and hopes to follow its lead with plans to create a new 120-seat performing venue in the city.
The chorus is not as optimistic. “We are very upset that we couldn’t be included in the renovation of the Beacon Hill Arts Center,” Director Mary Anne Sharp says via email. The First Baptist Church of Decatur is serving as the chorus’ temporary location as it looks for a new space.
“Decatur is growing,” says Warner of Gathering Wild, who feels that the closing represents a positive change for the city despite the loss of a regular rehearsal space for her company. She says that when she moved to Decatur, many residents sent their children to private schools. Now the school system is more attractive to Decatur families, making the need for more space is inevitable.
But for now, many longtime members of the dance community are mourning the loss of Beacon Hill like the passing of an old friend. Says Warner with a sad chuckle: “If there’s ever been a building I want to chain myself to, it’s this one.”