THE LEAD­ING EDGE OF EDGE

AN AD­VEN­TUR­OUS DANCE STU­DIO IS CARV­ING A NICHE IN ROCKVILLE BY SIDESTEP­PING THE MAIN­STREAM

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS - BY SARAH KAUF­MAN

When Dana Reitz and Sara Rud­ner, two ma­tri­archs of post­mod­ern dance, brought their much-an­tic­i­pated col­lab­o­ra­tion “Nec­es­sary Weather” to the Washington area last spring, they didn’t ap­pear at the Kennedy Cen­ter or at any of the re­gion’s other prom­i­nent dance spa­ces.

The two women per­formed their silent study of move­ment and light in a tiny 150-seat the­ater tucked in­side a dance school be­hind Con­gres­sional Plaza in Rockville. This is where you’ll find the Amer­i­can Dance

In­sti­tute, an am­bi­tious name for the no-frills former ware­house you can eas­ily miss while hunt­ing for it just off the big-box sprawl of Rockville Pike. (Tip: Pass Buy Buy Baby and hook a right.)

For ad­ven­tur­ous dance lovers, ADI has be­come the re­gion’s lead­ing edge of edge.

In the past cou­ple of years, its au­di­ences have en­coun­tered an ar­ray of ex­per­i­men­tal works by vet- eran, in­de­pen­dent-minded artists, such as a work-in­progress about geno­cide, di­rected by the primo pup­peteer Dan Hurlin; so­cial com­men­tary via life-size Bar­bies by Jane Com­fort and Com­pany, and the text-heavy ex­is­ten­tial eeri­ness of David Neu­mann.

Th­ese cat­e­gory-de­fy­ing dance-the­ater hy­brids of­fer an in­ti­mate emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ence, even as they re­quire pa­tience and, per­haps, a cer­tain sus­pen­sion of logic to ap­pre­ci­ate. Most of what ADI presents in its per­for­mance se­ries is work you might not oth­er­wise see un­less you trek to the niches of Lower Man­hat­tan.

But ADI doesn’t only draw from New York. On March 2 and 3 the lit­tle black-box the­ater presents the San Fran­cisco-based Joe Goode Per­for­mance Group in “The Ram­bler,” a look at the Amer­i­can love af­fair with

‘ THE RAM­BLER’: The San Fran­cisco-based Joe Goode Per­for­mance Group will per­form at Amer­i­can Dance In­sti­tute in Rockville on March 2-3. Goode de­scribes the work as “Clint East­wood meets Sid­dhartha.”

lon­ers that Goode de­scribes as “Clint East­wood meets Sid­dhartha.”

What’s in­ter­est­ing about ADI is not so much the fact that it ex­ists in the sub­urbs. Busy venues such as Strath­more and the Univer­sity of Mary­land’s Clarice Smith Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter have been draw­ing dance au­di­ences be­yond the Belt­way for years. What’s in­ter­est­ing is that ADI, with its com­mit­ment to ex­per­i­men­tal dance, ex­ists at all.

“It’s a mir­a­cle,” says Goode, whose 30-year ca­reer of mov­ing, singing and sto­ry­telling on the mar­gins of the dance world has de­pended on rough-around-theedges the­aters like this one. The­aters that sup­port ex­per­i­men­tal per­form­ers are “get­ting to be more and more rare,” he says, be­cause they have to find a way to sur­vive with­out the kind of big donors with a taste for galas that high-end venues can at­tract and cul­ti­vate.

What sets ADI apart from other dance pre­sen­ters — not just in the sub­urbs, but also any­where in the re­gion — is that it de­lib­er­ately side­steps the main­stream, while be­ing highly se­lec­tive about the fringes. Here in this province of Hair Cut­terys and mini­vans, across the park­ing lot from the Cen­ter for Prostate Disease Re­search, you will find noth­ing safe. ADI presents nei­ther big-name at­trac­tions — no Mark Mor­ris Dance Group or Paul Tay­lor Dance Com­pany — nor smaller au­di­ence-friendly groups such as Cedar Lake Con­tem­po­rary Bal­let.

ADI Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Adri­enne Wil­lis says she de­cided to stake her success on au­di­ence in­tel­li­gence. Even if her po­ten­tial mar­ket didn’t know much about the groups she brought in — or didn’t know much about dance at all — she was sure that once she lured them in, ticket buy­ers would learn to love her picks just as much as she does. And she was right. “I was con­fi­dent that there was a void of this type of pro­gram­ming in the area,” Wil­lis says. “D.C. should have more — the au­di­ence is there for it. And it’s such an in­tel­lec­tual au­di­ence, too. They like the chal­lenge.”

ADI opened as a dance school in 2000, run by Pamela Booth Bjerk­nes, a former dancer with Amer­i­can Bal­let The­atre, and the late Michael Bjerk­nes, a prin­ci­pal dancer with the Jof­frey Bal­let. In 2008, Michael Bjerk­nes started book­ing small tour­ing groups in one of the dance stu­dios on week­ends, but plans were over­shad­owed by his death that year from colon can­cer. (Since 2011, the school has been run by artis­tic di­rec­tor Run­qiao Du and his wife, Erin, the school di­rec­tor; both are former Washington Bal­let mem­bers.)

In 2010, with a match­ing grant from the county for ren­o­va­tions, the newly hired Wil­lis de­cided to up ADI’s game.

“We could take a risk, start fresh,” Wil­lis says. “We started think­ing, ‘What would be the per­fect au­di­ence?’ We de­cided to start them where we wanted them to be, in­stead of start­ing off do­ing things that were more ac­ces­si­ble.”

Sit­ting in her of­fice on ADI’s sec­ond floor, over­look­ing the apart­ment build­ings across East Jef­fer­son Street, Wil­lis, 34, is dressed in all in black, set­ting off her pale skin and blond hair. When she looks at you, her pierc­ing round eyes never seem to blink. She might seem se­vere if it weren’t for her easy chuckle.

She got her first taste of dance while grow­ing up in Toronto, with fre­quent for­ays to Mon­treal’s per­for­mance hot spots. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from Sarah Lawrence Col­lege, she worked as a stage man­ager and di­rec­tor, and helped find fund­ing for play­wright friends in New York. (This may ex­plain her taste for the the­ater end of the dance spec­trum.) She says her goal is to host artists who wouldn’t oth­er­wise have a home in the D.C. area.

“It’s a gam­ble,” she says. “A lot of pre­sen­ters don’t take gam­bles right now.” So why did she? She laughs, and her eyes get even brighter. “Well, I wasn’t gam­bling with a lot.” Un­like, for ex­am­ple, long­stand­ing Dance Place in North­east D.C., with nearly year-round per­for­mances of a wide range of lo­cal and out-of-town groups, Wil­lis is pre­sent­ing seven artists this year. And they come rel­a­tively cheap. ADI pays around $15,000 for a week­end of per­for­mances.

The per­for­mance se­ries

ac- counts for less than 10 per­cent of the in­sti­tute’s $2 mil­lion bud­get. Ticket sales cover about half the costs; grants make up 20 per­cent and a few pri­vate donors take care of the rest.

The grow­ing buzz sur­round­ing the per­for­mance se­ries has boosted ADI’s pro­file. “Do­ing th­ese pro­duc­tions is mar­ket­ing in and of it­self for ADI,” Wil­lis says. She has been able to cut back on the school’s ad­ver­tis­ing bud­get, and has watched stu­dent en­roll­ment triple.

Sub­ur­bia of­fers cer­tain perks for the vis­it­ing artists: For starters, they stay at the nearby Hil­ton, and Whole Foods do­nates meals.

“Peo­ple who are used to tour­ing and be­ing put up in other peo­ple’s houses, they like that,” Wil­lis says.

But what Goode and Com­fort are most grate­ful for is sim­ply the empty space ADI of­fers them.

“Ev­ery­one wants pirou­ettes and big jumps,” says Com­fort, in the slight drawl of her na­tive Ten­nessee. Dance-the­ater artists like her, who fo­cus on small-scale sto­ry­telling rather than phys­i­cal ex­cite­ment, “are with­out a home. There are so many pre­sen­ters that are bring­ing in the big dance groups who will get the main­stream au­di­ence in the seats, be­cause they’ll bring the money.”

“I feel we have to be care­ful that Alvin Ai­ley and Pilobo­lus are not the only thing that any­body sees as con­tem­po­rary dance,” Goode says. “A lot of peo­ple think that dance is all about spec­ta­cle and scale and en­ter­tain­ment. And so we’re not cul­ti­vat­ing artists whose work is more in­ti­mate and per­sonal and feels more con­ver­sa­tional, more con­tem­po­rary in its tex­ture. It’s not back here be­hind the prosce­nium and you’re way out there. We’re speak­ing about the hu­man con­di­tion and we’re speak­ing about your life, so we want to be close to you.

“I don’t want peo­ple to leave my show and think, ‘Oh, Joe Goode was awe­some,’ ” he says. “I want peo­ple to think, ‘Oh, that work made me think about my own ag­ing, it made me think about how I am in re­la­tion­ships and about is­sues of equal­ity.’ ”

Goode, who says he is “com­pletely ob­sessed with the Amer­i­can West,” ex­plores the light and dark sides of the cow­boy demigod in “The Ram­bler,” which his group will per­form next week­end. It’s a mix of move­ment, mono­logues, saloon-girl croon­ing and tes­ti­mo­ni­als by those fated to love a loner.

“At the core of be­ing Amer­i­can, we really value the rugged in­di­vid­ual, the guy who walks off into the sun­set. Clearly that’s very at­trac­tive to us,” Goode says. “But we also suf­fer from this con­di­tion. If you look closely at the icon of the ram­bler, there’s al­ways some­one who’s been left be­hind, un­able to hold on to this per­son.”

Wil­lis says she got in touch with Goode through Susie Farr, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Clarice Smith Cen­ter, whom she cred­its as be­ing es­pe­cially sup­port­ive of her fledg­ling ef­forts. Wil­lis met with Farr soon af­ter coming to ADI.

“I told her she should be in­trepid,” Farr says. “The ten­dency is to say there isn’t much sup­port for new work in sub­ur­ban Mont­gomery County. But when you look at the data, we ac­tu­ally have a large au­di­ence.”

Still, Wil­lis doesn’t want to bring in groups that are too offthe-wall. “As long as it is a co­her­ent piece of chore­og­ra­phy, we aren’t wor­ried about los­ing the au­di­ence,” she says. “As long as it’s not just be­ing weird to be weird. There’s a lot of mod­ern dance that’s just weird and there’s not a phi­los­o­phy be­hind it, no co­her­ence to the work. . . . That’s why it has to be good qual­ity. If we do one piece that’s fringey just to be fringey, I think we’ll lose our au­di­ence.”

Word-of-mouth has spread quickly, draw­ing au­di­ences from the District as well as from Mont­gomery County. Jane Moya, who works in com­mu­ni­ca­tions for Fred­die Mac, first made the trip from her Dupont Cir­cle hometo see Reitz and Rud­ner a year ago be­cause she

“The more we can bring au­di­ences in and be com­fort­able with what they’re see­ing, we can grow the au­di­ence. ... It has to be good qual­ity. If we do one piece that’s fringey just to be fringey, I think we’ll lose our au­di­ence.” Adri­enne Wil­lis ADI ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor

wanted “to see some­thing more un­usual, not so run-of-the-mill.” Now she’s a reg­u­lar at­tendee.

“I like to see some­thing that’s a lit­tle more vis­ceral, where you feel like you’re really a part of it and it’s very in­ti­mate,” says Moya, 42. She’s also a fan of the wine­and-cheese re­cep­tions ADI hosts af­ter the Satur­day evening per­for­mances, where she has been able to meet the artists.

Giv­ing au­di­ences more in­sight into what they’re see­ing, with the post-show re­cep­tions and also pre-show talks, is a big part of ADI’s success, ac­cord­ing to Wil­lis and other ob­servers.

“Peo­ple feel like they should be un­der­stand­ing ev­ery­thing about dance,” says Jen­nifer Lane, 56, a former dancer and ele­men­tary school prin­ci­pal-in­tern who lives in Rockville. But since a healthy dose of mys­tery is of­ten part of what ex­per­i­men­tal artists of­fer, at ADI “they really make a big point of help­ing peo­ple put the work into con­text.” Lane at­tends with her boyfriend who, she says, knew noth­ing about dance un­til he saw David Dorf­man last year “and he — shock­ingly — really loved it a lot.” The pre-show talk helped, where the mes­sage was: You see what you see, and that’s okay.

While ADI is build­ing its au­di­ence, it has also launched two “in­cu­ba­tor” pro­grams to help build new work. Metro In­cu­ba­tor of­fers lo­cal artists eight months of re­hearsal space and a pub­lic show­ing; this year’s re­cip­i­ents are Erica Re­bol­lar, Karen Reedy and Vin­cent Thomas. The Na­tional In­cu­ba­tor Pro­gram is de­signed to put the fin­ish­ing touches on a work-in-progress; it gives four groups a week of re­hearsal space, un­lim­ited use of the tech­ni­cal crew, help with travel costs, lodg­ing, a per diem and a pub­lic show­ing.

Jane Com­fort will be one of the in­cu­ba­tor artists next fall (the oth­ers are Brian Brooks Mov­ing Com­pany, Doug Elkins Chore­og­ra­phy Etc., which is per­form­ing at ADI April 13-14, and Rashaun Mitchell & Si­las Riener). She’s ea­ger to use the week to try out some­thing she has had in mind for a new dance. She en­vi­sions clouds of water va­por cascading down the walls of the the­ater, lit “so it’s like the way you see mist in the morn­ing.”

In the past, Com­fort would have had to shelve her vi­sion. How could she af­ford to work out the en­gi­neer­ing of beau­ti­fully lit mist, when stu­dio time for the danc­ing was costly enough?

“You get into the me­chan­ics of it and you say, ‘Oh well, it was just an idea,’ ” she says. “But I’d just like to try it, and maybe it only hap­pens at ADI. It could be a dis­as­ter. But maybe that would hap­pen on a Tues­day and we’d have the rest of the week.” The in­cu­ba­tor pro­gram “al­lows you to dream.”

Wil­lis has also launched plans for a mul­ti­year pro­gram of Is­raeli dance, with sup­port from the Is­raeli Em­bassy. New York-based ZviDance, founded by Is­raeli­born Zvi Gotheiner, is the first in­stall­ment, with per­for­mances May 4-5. Wil­lis hopes to in­vite artists from Is­rael to ADI next year.

“The more we can bring au­di­ences in and be com­fort­able with what they’re see­ing, we can grow the au­di­ence,” she says. She looks out onto the road in front of her build­ing, a road that has al­ready car­ried its com­muters off to their jobs and lies empty this re­cent morn­ing.

“I’m a dreamer,” Wil­lis says. “If you get peo­ple into the space, noth­ing can com­pete with that ex­pe­ri­ence.”

SARAH L. VOISIN/THE WASHINGTON POST

EX­PER­I­MEN­TAL DANCE: Adri­enne Wil­lis, above, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Amer­i­can Dance In­sti­tute, brings in ex­per­i­men­tal works to the small stu­dio, in­clud­ing Jane Com­fort and Com­pany’s “Beauty,” be­low. Com­fort will be in the in­sti­tute’s in­cu­ba­tor pro­gram in the fall.

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