Double-sided Gem in the Suburbs of DC

September 21, 2014


Aszure Barton’s
Awáa. Photo by Kim Williams, courtesy of the Banff Centre.



On a busy, tree-lined street in suburban Rockville, Maryland, an unlikely double-barreled dance organization is making waves. American Dance Institute is both a ballet school and a savvy theater for the coolest contemporary work. By day, its four studios are filled with young people learning ballet, modern, jazz, tap, hip hop; by night its theater presents work by choreographers like Aszure Barton, Crystal Pite, Neil Greenberg and Vicky Shick.

I know this because I just performed there with Vicky Shick over the weekend. Not only was the intimate space perfect for our piece, Everything You See, but we were treated royally by the crew and staff. They gave us tasty, healthy food; exercise mats and rollers; and fluffy towels for showers. A wardrobe person washed and dried our costumes between dress rehearsal and performance.

Although the school’s Nutcracker is performed in the same theater, the parents of the students rarely come to these “postmodern” performances. Which is why, as executive director Adrienne Willis told me, they’ve had to build an audience from scratch.

Hired in 2010, Willis renovated the building, expanded the offerings, and asked Erin and Runqiao Du, former Washington Ballet principals, to direct the school. In that first year, enrollment tripled from 100 to 300. Then she decided to program the theater with dance artists she found engaging. She had studied at Sarah Lawrence College, where the dance department is headed by Sara Rudner (a 2009 Dance Magazine Award recipient). She also asked Dan Hurlin, the director/puppeteer who is on the dance and theater faculty at Sarah Lawrence, to serve as artistic advisor, and Sarah Lawrence theater producer Ruth Moe to be director of the performance series. Between the three of them, their tastes veer away from the mainstream toward the very contemporary.


Above: Students of ADI. Photo by Brianne Bland, courtesy ADI.


As Lisa Traiger pointed out in our April issue, ADI’s National Incubator program gives dance artists a valuable residency with resources of space, technology, and technical crew. Last year the artists included Jane Comfort, Brian Brooks, Doug Elkins and John Jasperse. This year the incubator artists include Ivy Baldwin, Susan Marshall and David Neumann. Other artists being shown include Dorrance Dance, Urban Bush Women, and DC artist Christopher K. Morgan. At the post-performance reception, I asked Traiger, who lives nearby, who the audiences tend to be. “They are a smart, educated audience,” she said, “the same people who go see foreign films.”

ADI has changed the dance landscape in the Capitol district. Last year dance critic Sarah Kaufman wrote in The Washington Post, “For adventurous dance lovers, ADI has become the region’s leading edge of edge.”


A big step in developing audiences was to institute pre-performance talks. Willis wanted her audience to “understand that they didn’t have to understand.” And after the show, the champagne receptions allow audience members to get to know the dance artists. Melanie George, the head of dance at American University, often gives the pre-performance talks. In this case, she did a great job of telling the audience how Shick brings the dancer down from superhero to human scale, preferring intimate details to the grand sweep—and how each audience member sees Everything You See differently.


At the reception for Shick, George enthused about the affiliation AU has with ADI. “ADI brings in artists you won’t see anywhere else in the city,” she told me. She’s especially pleased because many of the artists work directly with her students. They had already taken a class with Shick (and one with me too, as it happens). A couple weeks ago they got to watch rehearsal and have one-on-one time with Jodi Melnick. Coming up are Aszure Barton, Susan Marshall, or Vertigo Dance Company from Israel. (The discount is open to students not only at AU, but also George Washington, University, George Mason, U of MD at College Park, and Georgetown.)

Luckily ADI had, from the start a generous supporter in Solange MacArthur, a former dancer with American Ballet Theatre who passed away in 2012. But that’s only part of it. It’s Willis’ and Moe’s commitment and discerning taste that have made the difference. Their audiences have grown along with them, from only 40 at the beginning to full houses of 120 or 140 these days. And, did I mention, it is a pleasure to perform there.

To check out the schedule this season click here.