One Grand Leap for D.C. Dancers

Article excerpt


Ten years ago, Fabian Barnes, a former dancer with the prestigious Dance Theatre of Harlem, was commuting to Washington from New York, trying to jump-start his idea of founding a major dance school and company for the black community in the nation's capital.

That's when I first saw him, rehearsing a group of dancers at the African Methodist Episcopal Church on 11th Street Northwest - in the basement. The ceilings were so low that the women couldn't go up in lifts. Pillars in the middle of the room presented obstacles to dance around. Undaunted, Mr. Barnes breezily ignored these problems, leading his dancers with confidence and verve.

Fast forward 10 years - he's still upbeat, clearly with good reason.

His umbrella organization, Dance Institute of Washington, is poised to unveil a new state-of-the-art building in the heart of Columbia Heights. The area, ravaged by the 1968 riots following Martin Luther King's assassination and left in shambles, finally - almost four decades later - is bursting back to life, with large-scale buildings completed and some still in the making.

DIW's new home, at 14th and Monroe streets Northwest, is probably the smallest but one of the most interesting projects in this explosion of new architecture.

"The building from the outside is quite a presence in the community," Mr. Barnes says. "The major studio space located on the 14th Street side will bring the activity going on in the studio to the street, and the street to the studio. That's one of the things the city was interested in - having that vitality."

The eye-catching structure houses, among other things, three large studios, all with the sprung floors dancers need.

"The largest studio has a lighting grid," Mr. Barnes points out during a fast-paced preview tour, "and we've ordered floor-to-ceiling draperies that will be operated by remote control so we can create a theatrical atmosphere for informal recitals."

This achievement will be celebrated Nov. 1 with a ribbon-cutting attended by Mayor Anthony A. Williams, District Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, Democratic mayoral nominee Adrian Fenty and Arthur Mitchell, Mr. Barnes' mentor and the founding artistic director of Dance Theatre of Harlem.

On Nov. 3 to 5, another prize aspect of DIW's new home will be revealed. Across the street, cater-corner from its entrance, lies the Gala Hispanic Theater (formerly the Tivoli), an impressive artifact from pre-riot days. The DIW building's entrance is deliberately set on an angle facing the theater, emphasizing their synergy. Freshly restored, the theater is a treasure, seating 285, perfect for DIW's Washington Reflections Dance Company. It is small enough to be intimate, large enough to serve an audience of close to 1,000 over a weekend of performances.

The celebratory program will include two new works by up-and-coming choreographer Camille Brown, a dancer in the Ronald K. Brown/Evidence company who has created two premieres for DIW: "The New Second Line," a tribute to the spirit of New Orleans for the entire 12-member company, and a solo, "Afro Blue. …