John Keen, the founder of Keen Dance Theater (KDT), has big dreams.
“In New York, Broadway Dance Center (had), like, neon lights. They had ‘Broadway Dance Center’ shining up there. And that would be perfect if ‘Keen Dance Center’ was shining, or in some bold color,” says Keen during a recent interview with Insider Louisville.
He’s one step closer to realizing that dream. Friday, July 15, marks the grand opening of his new studio in the Heyburn Building on Broadway, an ideal place for a giant neon sign — it’s situated right across from the Brown Theatre.
Though Keen has been teaching classes in the space since April, this weekend marks the first time he’ll invite the public to come in as his students and seven-member company performs “On the Radio,” a concert of new and returning works from Keen.
Keen Dance Theater began in New York, where Keen lived for 13 years after graduating from the Youth Performing Arts School in Louisville. (Full disclosure: Keen and this writer were classmates.) He studied for several years with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and worked with a variety of small companies before starting his own.
“New York is where I found myself as a dancer and a choreographer,” he says. “And it was amazing, it was mind blowing, and I’ve grown into this person. It was an amazing journey.”
KDT existed in New York for about six years before Keen returned home to Louisville, bringing the dreams for his company with him. For the last two years, KDT has rented space from other arts organizations, like Vault 1031 and the Shawnee Arts & Cultural Center.
Keen knew one of the next steps was to open his own studio.
“It got crazy renting from other people,” he says. “So, OK, I’ve got to find something for myself.”
He suffered a few false starts. “I searched, commercial space, and stuff was not coming up that I would like or that would be safe for kids.”
He looked at a space on Oak Street and was looking at the Starks Building before their big renovation was announced.
Finally, the Heyburn Building was suggested to him by local artist Alexis “Stix” Brown, who also has contributed a mural to the dance center. Keen immediately gravitated to the building.
“They had space, and I came up here to the fourth floor,” he explains. “I was, like, this would be perfect — a perfect start.”
The studio is still a work in progress. There’s a special dance surface on half the studio and fresh paint on the walls. Keen is in the process of purchasing floor-to-ceiling mirrors that are a key tool in dance training.
This weekend’s shows were originally scheduled for the theater in the Henry Clay Building, but Keen realized he would be missing an opportunity to showcase his studio.
“We can promote the studio, so we’re gonna have it here,” he says. “It’s gonna be limited seating — probably 22 chairs and the rest standing-room only.”
Showing off the studio and selling people of the strength of his dream is key for Keen. The suite in which KDT is located butts up against an even larger studio space, and he says he hopes to expand into that in the near future.
But before KDT physically expands, it will beef up its offerings in the fall, when Keen plans to add classes to the center’s schedule.
“I don’t just want dance. Next season, I’m putting musical theater into our program. There’s a lot of kids who have amazing voices,” says Keen, adding that his own experiences in musical theater encouraged him to include it on the schedule.
The roster for Keen’s adult company currently sits at seven, and he says the smaller number is a good fit for now.
“Even though I think huge, I wanna keep it small and work with the seven I have,” says Keen, who went on to describe the challenges he faces running a company in Louisville. “Of course it’s different from New York; in New York, there’s an endless supply of dancers, but it’s really hard to find gigs. Here, people are throwing gigs at me, and I’m so grateful, but it’s, like, no dancers.”
Some of those gigs include performances at the African American Heritage Center, WorldFest, and an upcoming performance on National Dance Day. You can catch them around town, but first check them out in their new space downtown this weekend.
Keen Dance Center is located in suite 402 in the Heyburn Building, 332 W. Broadway. Performances of “On the Radio” are Friday, July 15, at 7 p.m., and Saturday, July 16, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at the door.