- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2008

American Dance Institute, the splendid dance center in Rockville created by Michael Bjerknes, is presenting a world premiere this weekend danced by American Ballet Theatre II, the junior training company of ABT.

The appearance here of ABT II is the culmination of two years of planning, but tragically, Mr. Bjerknes has not lived to see it. He died earlier this week at age 51 after a long battle with cancer.

It was his love of dance and his generosity to the Washington dance community that made his American Dance Institute such a nurturing space for students, young choreographers and the audiences he built with his fine, modestly priced programs. His wife, Pamela Bjerknes, ADI’s artistic director and a former member of American Ballet Theatre, recalled how even last week, when dancer-choreographer Helanius Wilkins visited Mr. Bjerknes in the hospital, her husband turned to her and said, “Be sure you take care of Helanius and give him lots of room to fail.”

“That’s the whole point of our Arts Incubator Program, to provide a safety net of time and space for artists so they have room to experiment,” Mrs. Bjerknes added.

This week, Mrs. Bjerknes and her staff have been devoting themselves to ensuring the success of the ABT II engagement. Its appearance is a highlight of ADI’s performance series, which over the years has included other lively young groups (Ailey 2, Paul Taylor’s Taylor 2 and the Joffrey Ballet’s second company) as well as Mr. Bjerknes’ generous support of local artists such as Ed Tyler, Bosma Dance and Edgeworks Dance Theater.

For its appearance here, ABT II is dancing the premiere of Aszure Barton’s “Barbara,” set to the haunting songs of the Edith Piaf-like French singer Barbara. Miss Barton is the first recipient of the Altria/ABT Women’s Choreography Project, which will commission a promising female choreographer, one a year, for three years.

“Historically, men have dominated the field of choreography, so, yes, it was a conscious decision to showcase female choreographers,” says Kevin McKenzie, director of American Ballet Theatre.

Wes Chapman, artistic director of the junior company, adds: “Our main purpose is to get the dancers stage experience, get them ready for this pretty crazy professional ballet life, which is requiring more diversity now than ever.”

For her premiere here, Miss Barton is using 11 of the group’s 13 dancers. After years of creating in a modern-dance framework with her own company, she says she has enjoyed getting back to her classical ballet roots. (She trained at the National Ballet of Canada.) She says she is delighted with the ABT II dancers, describing them as “incredibly open, full of personality and really strong, artistically and technically.”

In her brief years as a choreographer, Miss Barton has had some extraordinary experiences. She appeared in a friend’s dance group in Nebraska where Mikhail Baryshnikov was starring as a guest artist.

“Mischa had heard through the grapevine that I was a choreographer, so he just came up to me and said, ‘I hear you’re a choreographer; when can I see your work?’ It was a gift from heaven.

“When we got back to New York, he had his people contact me to get some video footage to him, and he’s been to every performance since.” Mr. Baryshnikov also named her artist in residence at his Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York City for the past two years and even asked her to make a piece on him.

“He’s really completely open,” Miss Barton says, “and expects to be directed. He says, ‘I’m the dancer, you’re the choreographer,’ then he takes the work and brings it to a level that’s incredible; once it leaves me, it’s completely his own.”

In addition to her premiere, “Barbara,” the ABT II program will include a new work, “Cake,” by Brian Reeder, and two classical ballets — the “Don Quixote” pas de deux and George Balanchine’s challenging “Allegro Brillante.”

WHAT: American Ballet Theatre II

WHEN: Tonight at 7, tomorrow at 2 p.m.

WHERE: American Dance Institute, 1570 E. Jefferson St., Rockville

TICKETS: $10 to $20

PHONE: 301/984-3003

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