On the Rise: Young Dance Collective

July 26, 2007

Under a warm evening sky last summer, a group of petite dancers dressed in white moved over the cracked concrete bottom of New York City’s long-abandoned McCarren Park swimming pool. Like ghosts of swimmers past, they danced with fluid gentleness amidst an ensemble of adult performers. All members of the Young Dance Collective, they had been invited by post-modern choreographer Noémie Lafrance to perform their signature work, Be There For Me, within her site-specific performance piece Agora. Their youthful exuberance infused the whole production, leading dance critic Deborah Jowitt of The Village Voice to single them out in her review and Lafrance to invite them to be more involved in this year’s Agora II.


The troupe, made up of seven 11- and 12 year-olds, has gone in two years from giving informal performances in friends’ lofts to working and sharing stages with some of New York’s most inventive choreographers and dance companies. The dancers first met in an afterschool program under the direction of Kim Cullen, who moved with her daughter Hannah to the city in 2003. From the start, the program focused more on dance-making than on traditional training. Cullen, then education director of the Pascal Rioult Dance Company (she’s now general manager at STREB), encouraged her dance friends and coworkers to drop by. Fueled by these professionals starting points and ideas, the students would break into small groups and make short movement sequences, which they then would string into a larger piece.


It didn’t take long before a few of the students wanted to get more serious about choreographing. With Cullen’s help, they decided to start a company and began rehearsing several times a week in an East Village studio. Many dance students focus on learning the right way to do things—technique and correct form. At YDC, choreography and imagination come first. The dancers think of an idea they’d like to explore and use various genres—modern, ballet, hip hop—to express that idea under the guidance of guest teachers and choreographers.


At the first rehearsal of Be There For Me, for instance, each dancer wrote down words that summed up major events in their lives: “lonely” and “scared” came up a couple of times. Then they worked on movement that would reflect those feeling, learning to trust each other as they explored their emotions.


When the company met to discuss their newest piece, Fizz, Sophia Orlow, age 12, asked, “This time can we do something funny?” But after creating a rep of serious works, the dancers weren’t sure how to go in a different direction. Cullen suggested they start exploring different ways of “bouncing, jumping, and rolling.” The result is a work that’s like shaking up a soda. The first movement is simple—all the dancers just lift their heads—and then they break into Buster Keaton-style comic vignettes at breakneck speed until they collapse in a heap.


Choreographer Brian Brooks came in to see the piece and give advice. “I thought I would be mentoring these kids, and they ended up mentoring me,” he says, struck by how well the dancers communicated. “The first thing he said was, ‘Wow, how did you do that roll?’” remembers Kassandra Thatcher, age 12, who was impressed when Brooks got down on the floor and demanded they show him. With his help, they took a closer look at their transitions and practiced repeating movement and making it larger. YDC performed Fizz to enthusiastic audiences as part of last summer’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival with Terry Dean Bartlett and Katie Workum’s DANCEOFF!.


Next the young choreographers would like to try making solos and duets. Several girls say they want to work with more boys. They also want to try choreographing works they don’t perform in. Liana Ray, age 12, plans to make a dance based on her cat’s movement when she’s not in the mood to be petted, which Ray plans to call Liquid Cat.


More opportunities lie ahead as the company grows up with its members. Brooklyn Arts Nexus’ Melissa Beaty has commissioned a piece from YDC called Fractured. The company is also working on a new choreographic collaboration with Larry Keigwin and will have a full-length evening show at Dance New Amsterdam this spring. Terry Dean Bartlett of DANCEOFF! feels YDC compares favorably with many adult companies. “I’m excited to watch them explore deeper issues and work on their technique,” he says. “They’re losing their cute factor and moving from a kind of novelty act into being a serious company.”

Sarah Keough, a former DM assistant editor, writes frequently on dance.