High Five with Brian Young

Academy of Colorado Ballet sends two competition companies to events: Aspirations and Rhapsody.

Former competition dancer and now director of two competition companies at the Academy of Colorado Ballet, Brian Young studied dance at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he also performed in Vegas shows. After furthering his training with Gus Giordano and Pattie Obey, he landed a job with LA JazDanc in San Francisco. DT asked how he gets serious ballet students to take their pointe shoes to the competition circuit.

How did the Academy of Colorado Ballet get into competing?

This was a taboo idea from the start—creating a competition program at a professional ballet school—and it was a tough sell. We started three years ago with just a few students who had followed the former director from her previous studio. Now the group has grown into 55 dancers. The benefits are becoming more and more obvious with every competition we attend.

How integrated are the competition dancers with the Colorado Ballet company members?

When there are auditions for The Nutcracker or other productions with young dancer roles, the competition dancers get the first shot at the roles. Company members take some of our advanced classes, so they are all dancing together in the studio. Colorado Ballet dancers also choreograph some competition routines. Our dancers are given a ton of exposure to the advanced dancers and it gives them an edge to dance in that professional environment.

With two competition teams entering the same competitions, do your dancers compete against one another?

This year is the first year both our teams, Aspirations and Rhapsody, will be attending the same events. It’s fortunate that at most competitions you’re competing against the point system, not each other. Our teams will be up against each other in some categories, but we’re also competing with each other. This year we’re bringing a big production number to competition that includes 60 kids from both companies. We hold four-hour rehearsals once a month to learn the routine. Through this, the kids don’t feel like they’re competing against each other. Instead, we’re a bigger, better team working together.

Do you find that your affiliation with Colorado Ballet puts added pressure on the dancers at events?

Being a part of a pre-professional company school holds us to a higher standard. Our dancers know they’re representing a bigger picture than many other kids at competition. People expect more out of us. In a lot of ways that’s beneficial, but it’s also stigmatic. We’re just another group of kids out there competing and getting experience. Ultimately it’s a good challenge for us. Other studios always assume we can’t do anything other than ballet, so they’re shocked to see that our kids are equally

competitive in every style.

What is the most important lesson you can teach your competition dancers?

The importance of working as a team toward a common goal—they get to address and reach that goal with competition dancing. They also learn that the general onstage experience is invaluable. As a young dancer, you only get to perform in a few shows each year. That’s not enough onstage experience. We know that our kids are going to have a really good edge when they start looking for dance jobs because they have the highest quality of ballet training and so much performing experience through competitions.

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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