Rockville's American Dance Institute Is Pushing Audiences in New Directions

Rockville’s American Dance Institute Is Pushing Audiences in New Directions

ADI is an incubator for cutting-edge dance

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New York-based Brian Brooks Moving Company is one of several dance companies that has taken advantage of ADI’s incubator program.. Photo Courtesy of ADI

ON WEEKDAY AFTERNOONS the American Dance Institute hums with the sound of piano music. Children practice plies and pirouettes in the high-ceiling studios of the ballet school and dance theater located off Rockville Pike.   

But if you happen by the studio at other times, you might see the former warehouse in an entirely different light. In the early morning and late at night, established and up-and-coming choreographers work on dance projects through an incubator program that’s gaining an international reputation. ADI selects a handful of dance artists annually and provides them with studio space, technical support that includes a full-time crew, and, maybe the most important, time to incubate new works before they are premiered at high-visibility venues in places such as New York City.

When the program is in session, choreographers along with dancers in yoga pants and woolly socks can be found working out lifts and refining steps. A choreographer and a lighting designer may be talking intensely about the placement of light elements, while a circle of dancers and a composer consult with another choreographer about timing.

Fifteen years after opening its doors, the American Dance Institute (ADI) has evolved from a ballet academy that was founded to offer classes for students ranging from preschoolers to preprofessional dancers. ADI continues to expand and change, offering the incubator program and a progressive contemporary dance series that is attracting a growing audience.

The story of how this world-class ballet academy transformed into a cutting-edge venue and an incubator for rising choreographers is one of artistic commitment, strategic planning and the generosity of a behind-the-scenes financial angel.

ADI WAS FOUNDED BY by retired professional ballet dancers Pamela and Michael Bjerknes—Pamela was hired by Mikhail Baryshnikov to dance with the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) in New York, and Michael was a mainstay at the Joffrey Ballet in the early 1980s.

“It was always in our master plan to have a theater, and the other part of that was our dedication to the process of choreography,” Pamela says. The original design for the building included an expansive lobby, unusual for most ballet schools, and a 40-foot by 30-foot studio that now serves as the 145-seat black-box Solange MacArthur Theater.

Solange MacArthur was the in-the-wings cheerleader and occasional financial angel behind much of ADI’s evolution. MacArthur, a granddaughter of insurance magnate John D. MacArthur, who founded the MacArthur Foundation, danced with Pamela in the ABT’s corps de ballet in the 1970s. MacArthur and the Bjerkneses became friends while living in New York, and they would talk long into the night about how the couple would one day open their own studio for young ballet students.

All three had stopped performing years before the Bjerkneses opened ADI in 2000. MacArthur was the first to quit ballet, going to medical school to become an anesthesiologist.

Michael Bjerknes, who graduated from college at 16 with a degree in math, earned an MBA in 1997 after his professional dance career ended, putting the degree to use in sales and consulting for General Electric. Pamela left the ABT stage in 1984, when her son was born, but continued to teach.

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