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 veteran, independent-minded artists, such as a work-in-progress 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 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-the-edges 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 accounts 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 off-the-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 home to see Reitz and Rudner a year ago because she 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 wine-and-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 Israeli-born 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.”
American Dance Institute presents the Joe Goode Performance Group, March 2 at 7:30 p.m. and March 3 at 2 p.m. $15-$30.