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Emerge from the Twinbrook Metrorail station in search of the American Dance Institute, and you might wonder if you got off on the wrong stop. Ahead is Rockville Pike and its endless caravan of determined cars. One side is lined with familiar strip mall hallmarks: Hooters, Fuddruckers, and a Sleepys mattress store. The other is a desert of a parking lot leading to a distant Whole Foods.

But keep going. Behind the Michaels and the Petco, just off of a dead end, is ADI, a former warehouse that’s now a children’s dance academy.

It’s also home this year to the Washington area’s best high-profile experimental modern dance performances, offering some bright spots in what’s otherwise a pretty lackluster season. Take the wider view, of course, and ADI isn’t a game-changer for D.C.’s modern dance audiences. But its approach—subsidizing the art with lucrative children’s classes, knowing the limitations of the form’s appeal, and finding enterprising ways to bring an audience into its small house—deserves attention from the area’s dance venues.

There’s no dearth of venues in Washington. But this fall, programming at the area’s best-known spaces is just about dismal.

Dance Place often brings in smaller, intriguing ensembles, but this season, it won’t bring in a single out-of-town company until January. The Kennedy Center has only two modern dance performances on its calendar, one of which is by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company—a groundbreaking group, to be sure, but one whose style has changed little in the many decades it’s toured to Washington. And George Mason University’s Center for the Arts also features just two contemporary dance performances: one by Pilobolus, a longtime group with its own signature aesthetic, and another by Martha Graham Dance Company, an ensemble dedicated to the preservation of pieces created by the mother of modern dance.

There’s nothing wrong with these older groups. But modern dance, like any contemporary art form, is fueled by relentless experimentation with new ideas. To stay in touch with where the medium is today, it’s crucial to see shows by choreographers who employ novel concepts, not just those whose work has become the movement equivalent of museum pieces.

That’s what makes ADI’s programming plans so exciting. This weekend, the institute is hosting Jane Comfort & Company, and in November it’s presenting David Dorfman Dance, both from New York. Neither group is particularly new—each has been working steadily since the 1980s—but both are smallish ensembles that have successfully incorporated recent modern dance developments and maintained a sense of energy and experimentation.

And those two shows aren’t outliers. This past spring, ADI presented Fraulein Maria, Doug Elkins’ charming deconstruction of The Sound of Music. Next March it will put on Necessary Weather, a much-hailed 1994 work by dancers Sara Rudner and Dana Reitz and lighting designer Jennifer Tipton.

That ADI, best known as a striving ground for adolescent ballerinas, is hosting the area’s most dynamic modern dance performances has caused more than one double take. Established in 2000 by Michael Bjerknes and his wife Pamela, ADI has always had some contact with the region’s dance community, but at first, the couple largely focused their energies on building up the school. Plans to better use one of the institute’s three huge studios as a performance space were in the works when Michael died in 2008.

When Adrienne Willis, the new executive director, came on last year, the school was doing well, but the nonprofit organization was still barely breaking even, according to its tax records. The board was looking for someone who could diversify funding sources and simultaneously raise the institute’s profile.

Willis, 32, has a background in contemporary theater in New York and says she’s dedicated to promoting living artists and new work. Maybe that’s partially why she decided that increased programming would fit both of the organization’s needs. It also makes sense. Booking a few high-quality companies isn’t that expensive; Willis estimates the 2011-12 season will cost her about 10 percent of ADI’s annual budget, or $150,000. Some of that can be subsidized by the school or underwritten by local businesses, and the rest is covered by private donations and grants dedicated to arts programming, which are easier to come by than grant funding for classes that are relatively conventional.

At the same time, Willis sees the performances as a key way to get the organization’s name out there. “I think quality is the best marketing work,” she says. “It’s cheaper to do Jane Comfort for a weekend than to take out a full page ad in the Post—and the return you get is greater, because you’re bringing people into the space.”

Putting her plan into action required restructuring finances and energizing private donors. She also won a $60,000 grant from the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery Council to build a permanent 150-seat theater meeting national specifications and hired new program staff to help run everything.

And instead of taking the safe route—scheduling a passel of ballets or hosting a handful of quiet modern dance emsembles—Willis is bringing in the companies she’s interested in from the get-go. “My philosophy is start where you’d like your audience to be,” she said. “Start accessible and it’s hard to make the move, but if you start at daring level, then the audience will come.”

It seems straightforward: vibrant programming meets a region lacking compelling dance performances.

Drawing Montgomery County residents is a relatively sure thing. With sophisticated tastes, money in their pockets, and little desire to travel to the District for every outing, they’ve benefited from the last decade’s boom of area cultural organizations. Strathmore, for example, just three miles south, has increased its number of exhibitions and concerts every year since the music center opened in 2005, including some that are downright risky.

But whether District residents—or anyone else—will show up is not as safe a bet. First of all, there’s the distance problem. “Suburban audiences are willing to go into the city, but getting city dwellers into the suburbs is very hard,” says Susie Farr, executive director of the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland-College Park. She adds that the center has always struggled to bring in audiences from the District and Virginia.

And then there’s the issue of contemporary performance art: Not everyone’s into it. So while kooky dancers Eiko and Koma sold out a few weeks ago at Clarice Smith, Farr lists other intriguing performances that barely filled half the seats. “I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t predict anymore,” she says.

But Willis & Co. have a few tricks up their sleeves to entice D.C. audiences. The biggest scheme is a partnership with art-party doyenne Philippa Hughes, who is helping market the shows through her website The Pink Line Project. She and ADI staff are hiring a Barbie-themed bus (Jane Comfort’s performance focuses on beauty and references the doll) to chauffeur scenesters out to Rockville. But is it enough? “I don’t know,” says Hughes. “People have this idea that Rockville is super far away. People are lazy, and dance is not at the top of their lists.”

The real trick, however, is keeping the stakes low. Because performances are subsidized by the now-thriving children’s school and outside funding, the institute’s finances don’t rest on selling all of the tickets to every show. So even though performances for Fraulein Maria were only two-thirds full, Willis nonetheless deemed it a success.

Which sets ADI far apart from the other dance presenters in town. A few, like Dance Place, hold adult-level classes that offset the cost of production somewhat. But just about all of them pay out big bucks to bring in companies and rely heavily on ticket sales to recoup some of that money. They can’t afford to take the kind of risks Willis is embarking on.

Plus, many—like the Kennedy Center and George Mason’s Center for the Arts—are backed by longtime conservative constituencies that aren’t looking for a change. “I don’t think the interest is there for [certain] cutting-edge work,” says Tom Reynolds, George Mason’s director of artistic programming, marketing, and audience services.

Still, Willis tends to frame the issue of modern dance programming in idealistic terms. “It’s not just about the bottom line,” she says. “I think we all have a responsibly to keep the art alive. Otherwise we’ll never sustain a dance audience.”