As The Pandemic Pummels Arts Groups, A New Dance Theater Emerges In Columbia Heights At the Dance Institute of Washington, staffers are experiencing something rather unusual in the arts world right now: excitement.
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NPR logo As The Pandemic Pummels Arts Groups, A New Dance Theater Emerges In Columbia Heights

As The Pandemic Pummels Arts Groups, A New Dance Theater Emerges In Columbia Heights

A dancer performs in "Our Spiritual Journey," in the Dance Institute of Washington's new black box theater. Courtesy of the Dance Institute of Washington/ hide caption

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Courtesy of the Dance Institute of Washington/

Most theater, dance and artistic organizations in the Washington region have spent the past eleven months weathering pandemic-induced financial challenges. Instead of staging performances, arts leaders apply for local and federal government grants. Furloughed staff chase down unemployment checks or search for work in industries that don't rely on in-person events for revenue.

But at the Dance Institute of Washington — a nonprofit dance education organization in Columbia Heights — staffers are experiencing something rather unusual in the arts world right now: excitement.

The cause for that peculiar feeling is the upcoming opening of the Dance Institute's new studio and performance space: the Fabian Barnes Black Box Theater. Members of the public will be able to see the theater for the first time this Sunday during the online premiere of "Our Spiritual Journey," a dance performance filmed in the space.

The free, 40-minute production will take viewers on a trip through Black diasporan history, culture and ancestry through a series of seven dances performed by current and former students.

In any other year, opening a performance space might seem like modest news. But wins are hard to come by for arts nonprofits these days, which is why executive director Kahina Haynes wants to take advantage of this chance for celebration.

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"It is fully, fully souped up," Haynes says of the new facility. "You've got a lighting grid that's comparable to stages at the Kennedy Center."

The new theater is, to Haynes' knowledge, one of just two Black-owned theater spaces in the District. (The other is at Howard University.) The professional dancer Fabian Barnes founded the organization in 1987 as a summer dance program for Deaf and hard-of-hearing youth in the District. Today, the organization aims to create space for BIPOC individuals to thrive creatively.

"A lot of our history comes from art. It comes from movement," says Ashanté Green, the school's manager and the creator and director of "Our Spiritual Journey." "That's how we healed. That was community."

The Fabian Barnes Black Box Theater. Courtesy of the Dance Institute of Washington/ hide caption

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Courtesy of the Dance Institute of Washington/

Despite its good news, the Dance Institute has not been immune to the financial struggles that plague many small D.C. arts organizations in the time of COVID. The school went all-virtual last March, and teachers had to quickly adapt to hosting classes on Zoom. Some students decided to drop out, leading to a decline in earned revenue. Some expected gifts from donors evaporated too.

Still, Haynes and her team were able to pull together the funding needed to finish the theater with grants from the D.C. government, Events DC, and private philanthropy. Teachers began piloting in-person classes in December with five or fewer students, and Green was able to rehearse and film "Our Spiritual Journey" inside the new black box theater.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the theater will only be accessible to staff and small groups of students for the foreseeable future. The Dance Institute hopes to open it to the public for rentals and performances this fall.

Watching her students enter the space for rehearsals for the first time was a balm for Green's spirit. "It was really special because it was at home," she says. "They came back to something that was stronger and better than it ever has been before."

This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.

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