Spotlight Studio: Reaching for New Heights

Posted on August 15, 2008 by

When Diane Jacobowitz launched a preprofessional New York City troupe called Kids Company, for ages 12 to 18, she invited choreographer Mark Morris to mount excerpts from his piece L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. Morris was astounded by the young dancers’ response to his choreography. “I want every member of my company to see this,” he announced after watching them perform. “They need to dance with this same innocence, simplicity.”

Since then, the members of Kids Company have worked with such choreographers as Bill T. Jones, Doug Varone, David Dorfman and Twyla Tharp—pretty serious territory for tweens and teens, some might say. Yet the idea that youngsters are capable of working with sophisticated material, and hungry for meaningful experiences, is central to the vision behind Dancewave, the Brooklyn-based organization Jacobowitz has been building for more than a decade. “Kids can go to a really deep level,” she says. “It’s an incredibly exciting process, one that children are capable of at an earlier age than we thought. This is the magic of Dancewave.”

Kids Company is just one facet of Dancewave, which Jacobowitz founded in 1995. While not all of its programs are geared toward dancers with professional aspirations, it strives to offer all students the same challenging yet supportive atmosphere that has made Kids Company so successful.

Dancewave’s other initiatives include Kids Company II, Kids Café Festival, summer intensives, an after-school program and an arts-in-education program called D-Wave in Motion. And this past spring, after years of searching, Dancewave found a permanent home. The Center at Dancewave, located in Brooklyn, houses the organization’s numerous programs, as well as a full schedule of classes for ages 3 through adult, including creative movement, modern, ballet, tap, jazz, hip hop, yoga and Pilates.

Seeking a Deeper Experience

It all began when Jacobowitz, a dancer and choreographer, was teaching at Long Island University, running her own dance company and caring for her 2-year-old daughter. She realized she couldn’t devote her full attention to both parenting and the company, and let the troupe go. She started teaching dance at a private school, but something was missing. Then, in a “eureka” moment, Jacobowitz knew what she wanted: a place where young, diverse dancers from all over the city could gather for a “professional experience.”

The Kids Café Festival came first, in January 1995. Open to all interested students and youth dance groups, the annual event produces works by and/or for children. Its diverse lineups of performances and workshops have drawn young dancers from all over NYC and as far as Germany. Each festival’s theme is tied to a host company that leads a workshop and performs in afternoon concerts; recent hosts have included hip-hop company Rennie Harris PureMovement and Afro-Brazilian dance and music ensemble OGANS.

Jacobowitz noticed that many students returned to the festival each year, eager for what it offered. “They were hungry for a deeper experience that I didn’t see anywhere around me,” she says. Convinced of the need for more challenging opportunities, she conceived the idea for a company of children
modeled on a professional dance troupe.

Nurturing and Challenging

Enter Kids Company, in 2000. “They’re working on a professional level, but they’re learning life skills as well,” Jacobowitz explains. “It’s an immersion program where dance transforms heir lives.”

This immersion in professional work establishes an environment in which sophisticated dancing is the norm. Jacobowitz thinks it helps that, unlike adults, young dancers “embrace physicality without thinking. They become sophisticated because they experience a huge array of different artists all the time. The exposure is mind-opening.”

Jacobowitz sees Kids Company as a link between modern dance’s past and future, and wants to make sure her dancers know that history not just through reading and lectures, but also with their eyes, ears and bodies. Dancers and parents go on field trips to see
concerts by the choreographers they work with and by the canonical founders. “I tell them, modern dance is like a folk art,” Jacobowitz says. “The history is in the body.”

Auditions are required for Kids Company, though Jacobowitz already knows most who try out. Those she doesn’t know she watches carefully, looking not only for technique but to see if “their hearts speak through dance, if it’s their passion. That’s what drives dancers to become great. If they want it, I’ll be there for them.” She makes a point to know not only her young dancers, but also their families. If she sees a child losing commitment, she tries to find out why. About a third of the company is on scholarship, as are many in Dancewave’s other programs.

“It’s the right measure of nurturing and challenging that are the ingredients for success,” she says. “Kids need to know you believe in them. They’re so vulnerable at this age, insecure about their bodies, their peers. The first hump is to get them in the room, to make them feel empowered; it’s all easier after that.”

Still, she says, the company isn’t for everyone. “For some the program is too rigorous, but most stick it out. They grow up with me. It’s moving.”

Looking Ahead

Jacobowitz is still waiting and watching to see how the alumni of Kids Company will fare in the professional world. To date, one student was invited to join DanceBrazil immediately upon graduation. Most go on to college and find a way to dance, whether or not they choose to major in it. Chafin Seymour, a graduating member of this year’s Kids Company, created his first professional-length work for the company’s spring concert. He’ll enter Ohio State University’s dance department this fall. Jackie Dodd, a 2005 graduate, is a dance and anthropology major at Washington University.

Meanwhile, Dancewave continues to grow. Recently, Jacobowitz added Kids Company II, a less intensive group for children not ready to make the commitment to Kids Company. The troupe performs works by up-and-coming choreographers like Andrea Woods, artistic director of Brooklyn-based Souloworks, and Astrid von Ussar, a well-known choreographer in her native Slovenia who now teaches and choreographs in the U.S. Participation in Kids Company II requires only a recommendation from an instructor.

Dancewave also sponsors a popular summer intensive that focuses on technique and composition. This year’s session (for 10- to 18-year-olds) is scheduled for August 18–29; a new, advanced intensive will take place August 11–22.

Today, many studios offer high-quality performance opportunities for students; some even follow Dancewave’s model, asking professional choreographers to create works for their young dancers. But it was Jacobowitz’s vision that proved this was possible. After 13 years, she is still excited by the process. “I guide the dancers,” she says, “and they continue to teach me, to enrich my life.” DT

Teaching artist Carrie Stern, PhD, writes “Dance Brooklyn” for the Brooklyn Eagle and other publications.

Photo by Maribel Arce.

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