New York Teens Make Dances in Alice Teirstein’s Unique Five-Week Summer Intensive

Love, performed in the finale concert, was choreographed by student Javia Richardson. Photo by Sam Polcer, courtesy of Young Dancemakers Company

The performance started like any other. Parents in the audience fiddled around with video cameras to make sure they wouldn't miss a moment of what was to come; dancers poked their heads out from behind the wings to see how many people were in the audience.

But this wasn't your average dance recital. The members of Young Dancemakers Company, a troupe of New York City public high school students, weren't just dancers. They had choreographed the work on display. The assignment: to create pieces personal to them. Subjects ranged from busy pedestrians in NYC to the relationship of a blind woman and her caretaker to someone lost in a never-ending cycle of drug abuse.

Young Dancemakers Company was started in 1996 by Alice Teirstein, who designed and ran the dance department at Ethical Culture Fieldston School, an NYC private school. Her curriculum emphasized creativity and choreography, which she says was unique in K–12 dance at the time. YDC was free of charge because Teirstein hoped to share the experience with New York teens who would not otherwise have the opportunity. In the first year, six inner-city kids participated.

This year, 21 seasons later, YDC included 14 students, selected by audition, who actively study dance at public schools around the city. During the free, six-week intensive, funded by local foundations and arts philanthropists, dancers start their day with technique class at 10 am and rehearse until 5 pm, five days a week for six weeks. And each year, the kids learn a masterwork. This summer it was a piece by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater artistic director Robert Battle; years past have included José Limón, Paul Taylor and Mark Morris, among others.

Alice Teirstein covers dancemaking elements early in the summer session. Photo by Lou-Ann Davis, courtesy of Young Dancemakers Company

Most of the day, though, is dedicated to the students' own choreography. The first week is devoted to improvisation with Teirstein, who talks about elements of dancemaking, like time, space and energy. Throughout the process, she stresses that they learn how to move uniquely, and true to themselves.

Then, the real work begins. The budding choreographers audition their peers to cast their pieces, and a rehearsal schedule is made. There's a costume budget, and students consult music director William Catanzaro when picking out music. Then, the studio is theirs. “It's supervised to the extent that we'll walk by and give feedback, but mostly, we stay out of their way while they're working," says Teirstein, who has help from YDC associate director Jessica Gaynor.

It's not easy for young dancers to find their voices, and then use them to command a room of kids their age. “They're looking for group approval or teacher approval. But they slowly start to realize that they are here to create work that is theirs," says Teirstein. “At the beginning of the program, I ask them to write down what is on their mind to make sure that they are really delving into that when it comes time to make their piece. There is an artist in everyone waiting to find their personal expression. It's exciting when the kid recognizes that in him- or herself."

Benjamin Lang and Javia Richardson perform Support by Kiana King. Photo by Sam Polcer, courtesy of Young Dancemakers Company

The program closes with eight fully produced performances throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. Each usually includes 10 original works by the young choreographers and the chosen repertory piece. This year's performance showcased a range of dance vocabulary, from modern to African dance, as well as a group-made piece in response to the police brutality happening against young black people across the country.

It's clear that the choreographers learned a lot of good dancemaking skills—and so much more. At the post-show Q&A, someone asked, “What was most valuable about this experience?" The most common answers: learning to be punctual, meeting new friends and having the space and time to let their minds run free.

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