Spotlight on the American Dance Institute

By Victoria Hutter
a group of women of color dancing

Among the artists appearing at American Dance Institute’s Incubator is Urban Bush Women pictured here in Hep Hep Sweet Sweet. Photo by Rick McCullough

"We are trying to expand our audiences’ horizons and help them understand that dance is a bigger tent than they probably think it is." -- Dan Hurlin, American Dance Institute

In the category of “rare as hen’s teeth,” you can include newly founded, contemporary dance presenters, institutions whose mission is to engage and program contemporary dance artists to benefit local audiences and the dance field. Contemporary dance is a comparatively specialized art form and one that faces distinct challenges of sufficient resources and spaces to work. Creativity, commitment, passion, and vision are basic requirements for any dance presenter.

Enter the American Dance Institute (ADI) in Rockville, Maryland, just outside Washington, DC. ADI is entering its fifth year as a dance presenter and its fourth as host of the Incubator, a program that provides mid- to late-career contemporary dance choreographers with fully supported week-long production residencies where they can refine new work in advance of a national premiere. ADI just received a $15,000 Art Works award to support the Incubator.

We spoke with ADI’s Director of Artistic Initiatives Dan Hurlin about the Incubator and the role it plays for the local community and the dance field nationally.

NEA: Aside from artists being mid-to-late career, what does ADI look for in the dance artists it engages? What about a choreographer’s aesthetic makes them a good fit for ADI?

DAN HURLIN: We want to work with artists who challenge the art form, challenge our audiences, and who also challenge themselves. For example, with choreographer Jane Comfort who is known for making narrative work, like a play within her dances, she decided to make a completely abstract work. That was very exciting for us because it was departure for her. Susan Marshall worked on a piece where all the collaborators (a choreographer, a sound designer, and a visual artist) were equal contributors to the generation of the piece -- a first for her.

In selecting artists we're always mindful of our audience. We know that some challenging work can be off-putting and yet, we are trying to expand our audiences’ horizons and help them understand that dance is a bigger tent than they probably think it is. 

NEA: What other kinds of places around the country offer choreographers the resources and facilities to bring a piece to production?

HURLIN: As we at ADI were beginning to develop the Incubator, we looked hard at the dance field and what we found was a good number of residency possibilities for contemporary dance. Yaddo (an artist community in Saratoga, New York) has just built a dance studio, for example, and if you’re a solo choreographer, you could attend MacDowell (an artist colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire). However, these places will support work on the early stages of a piece. That's the huge difference from what we do. We offer the technical support towards a finished work. Many choreographers today are incorporating a set or media or video projection into their dances. These kinds of elements are hard to work into the choreography in the normally allotted two-day tech period. 

So this is an opportunity for the choreographer to develop ideas and be thoughtful about integrating all of the various elements into a finished piece. I don't think there is another place in the country that offers this kind of opportunity. Or at least, none that I've heard of.

NEA: Once the artist arrives, how much does ADI participate as a creative consultant/assistant/sounding board?

HURLIN: The philosophy of the technical department at ADI is just to say, "Yes." A choreographer might say, "I need to have a rain storm at the end of the piece." So our technical staff will brainstorm with the artist and together they figure out how to make that element happen.

That would be the extent to which the ADI staff participates in the creation of the work. We are not creative consultants. It's completely hands-off in terms of the aesthetic. That's the artist's job. ADI's job is just to make their images real.

NEA: How do you balance your commitments to your different stakeholders? Supporting dance artists in developing new work, expanding local audiences for dance with accessible programming, serving the local dance community, and advancing the field of dance presenting?

HURLIN: One thing that is a critical part of the Incubator is the pre-show talk by a dance scholar or another choreographer discussing the work the audience will see. The talks go a long way towards galvanizing the audience. Whether made up of students, or professional dancers, or newbie audience members, the intent is to demystify how you make a dance.

Also, we realize that dance doesn't have a huge audience. A lot of people don't know how to watch dance and sometimes the pre-show talk will be about just that. The sessions are an important tool for putting the audience all into one boat, regardless of the dance experience they bring to seeing the work.

NEA: What have you learned so far about the creative process involved in bringing a dance piece through to production? For example, do artists’ needs vary greatly from artist to artist or are there many similarities?

HURLIN: The main thing we have learned and that we are continually running up against is how desperately the field needs this kind of support. At every turn, something reminds us about how hard it is to be choreographer. And it's not just being a dance choreographer, but it's also difficult to be a dance presenter. Virtually everyone in the performing arts is suffering but in the dance world it is particularly hard. Fewer resources and those resources are stretched even thinner. At ADI, we are constantly asking ourselves what else we can provide for the artists and for the field in general. What else can we give and do? 

I also think we have learned to be completely flexible. Especially at the late stage of creating a work, no two residencies are ever going to be alike. There will be completely different needs, different personalities involved. So you need a staff that is ready to say yes and you need a performing space that is convertible. 

NEA: Tell me more about ADI’s relationship with dance presenters nationally. What kinds of guidance, support, materials do you provide them?

HURLIN: That's a really interesting question for me, because I am of an age when in order to do a dance piece in New York, the presenter would insist on having the premiere. That was just the way it was back in the day. Well, now it is just the opposite. Nobody in New York wants premieres. They want the work to be tried and tested and ready to go.

That's one of the things we've been doing with presenters is talking with them about artists we at ADI are interested in, and then the presenters talk to us about artists they're interested in and we see if we can put together a little ad hoc consortium. ADI will provide the premiere for a particular artist so that the presenter can see the work. We've been talking with organizations like BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) and with NYLA (New York Live Arts). We just started cultivating a relationship with the Walker Art Center (Minneapolis) but our relationships lie mostly with New York presenters. They are informal and good relationships in which we are in continuous conversation well in advance of programming a season.

One of the biggest challenges about curating a developmental program like the Incubator is timing. Finding those artists who are at the point in their process where the next step is the premiere, where they are ready to add the technical elements, and we have an open slot in our season. The scheduling is really tricky.

NEA: Where or how do you see ADI developing in the future?

HURLIN: We’ve got a few artistic initiatives that we've put in place. We have had two years of the Solange MacArthur Award for New Choreography. The award includes a $10,000 grant and an Incubator residency plus we'll help with fundraising and providing 501(c)3 status. We make these awards to younger artists. In this moment for dance, it's easier for a mid-career artist to get a commission but impossible for younger artists to get one. That was the reasoning behind the award. It is another program that ADI is looking to expand.

And of course, we want to grow the Incubator itself. We think of all the things that we do, the center piece of our program is the Incubator. We think it's the most important to the field, and it's most important to our hearts. It’s the program around which everything else revolves.

NEA: Anything you would like to add?

HURLIN: We would like to thank the NEA very much for this grant and for acknowledging the value of our work supporting dance artists. 

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