Executive Director, Peter London Global Dance Company
Written and photographed by Andy Armano | www.AndyArmano.com
Kal is an All-American story – a first generation American and a self-made man who has created a successful life in business and the arts. He is the executive director of the world-renowned Peter London Global Dance Company (PLGDC), a company on the cutting edge of dance that also invests in and nurtures local talent in extraordinary ways. His leadership will ensure the PLGDC continues to enrich arts patrons as well as the lives of underprivileged youth with big dreams and great talent.
Andy Armano: So, let’s just start by telling me a little about where you came from, what your upbringing was like, etc.
Kal Gajraj: Sure. So I was originally born in Queens, in New York. My family moved down here when I was very young because my father started a shipping company that exported goods and services from Miami to the Caribbean and throughout South America. I’m a first generation American, which I’m very proud of. My family immigrated to the United States from Guyana, which was ruled by the British. A lot of folks don’t realize where Guyana is, but it’s in South America. I was born in New York, grew up here in South Florida, went to elementary, middle, high school, and college here, and started my career here. So, South Florida is home and is the only thing I know.
AA: You’re now the Executive Director of PLGDC. For those who haven’t yet had the privilege of knowing about this amazing company, give me an introduction.
KG: PLGDC is Miami’s iconic contemporary dance ensemble, and we are the only multicultural dance company in South Florida. We are the most diverse when it comes to the dancers, leadership, the board, and so on.
AA: What drives the multicultural vision of the company?
KG: Our mission is to be able to support the local talent and dreams of artists that are growing up here in Miami. Over the years, our dancers have gone through high school and then on to New World School of the Arts, Miami Dade College, or out of state. They have been personally tutored by Peter London. They’ve gone on to have amazing careers. And then, they come back to perform in our shows. Peter London’s mission has always been to take these kids in underserved communities, in black and brown communities, and nurture their talent. They need to know that they CAN dance ballet or contemporary dance because for a lot of these kids, that’s a life that only exists in movies. Peter London gives them a platform that a lot of arts organizations don’t give them.
AA: What are some of the barriers of entry into the performing arts as a career for people coming out of underprivileged neighborhoods?
KG: The lack of programs. There is simply a lack of programs in underserved communities for kids to paint, draw, sing, dance, etc. The arts funding has been taken out of the public schools, so with a lot of the schools now, they don’t even teach the arts anymore. They don’t teach music, they don’t teach theater, they don’t teach dance. That’s something that local organizations have taken upon themselves to do with after school programs to get these communities excited, and to get these kids excited and develop their passions for whatever it is they want to do. Our dance company nurtures talent over time, so we have many dancers returning to the area after performing all over the world.
AA: That’s an incredibly strong emphasis on keeping ties with dancers as their careers progress. What a brilliant idea.
KG: Peter London does a great job with inviting back our dancers and choreographers every year. Not only does that support the dancers, but it also builds a history with the patrons. Our patrons know them from when they were growing up here. When the dancers go away to perform, our patrons look forward to seeing them again. We host talks in which our dancers are sharing about their professional lives. It’s quite an experience to watch them as they grow up in Miami, attend the New World or Juilliard, and then go on to have these amazing careers around the world. They might be dancing in The Lion King, performing in a Broadway show, or performing a ballet overseas.
AA: Speaking of love of the arts, where did you get your love for the arts?
KG: It was from school. I was fortunate enough to have an arts program in school. I’ll never forget, it was my senior year in high school and my English teacher took students on a field trip to a Broadway show, and it was the first Broadway show I had ever been to. I absolutely fell in love with the whole aspect of live theater. The lighting, sets, design, costumes, acting, and singing. I love all these and I love everything there is to do that makes up live theater.
AA: You’ve been on the business side of the arts.
KG: Yes, and I’ve always been passionate about it since. When I got the opportunity to work for Florida Grand Opera (FGO) and to be actually in the industry, it was a dream come true. But now being able to lead an arts organization, I feel as though it’s come full circle. I am able to influence this generation of kids that are growing up so they continue their interest in the arts. We work with college kids that are wanting to pursue dance. We can give each of them that opportunity.
AA: What a fantastic way to build an artist community by building a connection between patrons, fans, and artists. How has the company adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic?
KG: We have moved online and we continue to engage our patrons. Our goal was to present content that is easily accessible and not necessarily long programs. We post videos of about 10 to 20 minutes. The longest one I think is 30 minutes. We post interviews and excerpts of past performances. It’s been a big hit because we’re able to give our patrons something to enjoy at home until we’re able to come together in the theater again. As I am having conversations with our patrons and our donors, I know they are very excited to come back. They want to come back. They are just concerned about sitting next to someone or that type of thing and being in those environments. So, part of my job as leadership is to have discussions with the venues and all the health and safety protocols for audiences and for those of us backstage.
AA: I always say the arts are not optional. They are the lifeblood of a community and help us with the experience of being human.
KG: I think we all need the arts, especially now in this time of the pandemic and social injustice. This is our 10th anniversary year, and we’re premiering a new work by Peter London later on this year called WOMEN-ROSES-WATER. The show is dedicated to women who have lost a loved one through this pandemic and through social injustice.
AA: This is the beautiful heart of it for me – creating a full circle and building for the future. It’s really wonderful. Thank you for what you do. Your work touches so many lives. And, thank you for sitting down with OutClique and sharing your story.