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Jason Warley Turns Rejection Into Opportunity at Center Stage Dance & Theatre School

Photo by Kyle Froman

When dancers walk into their first rehearsal for The Ensemble, they're rarely happy to be there. After all, membership in this company was probably not their first choice. You see, The Ensemble is made up of dancers at Center Stage Dance & Theatre School who don't make the cut for the elite senior team. At first, these students, many of whom have been training at the East Brunswick, New Jersey, studio since they were little, view membership in The Ensemble as a sort of consolation prize. But thanks to Jason Warley, they don't see it that way for long.

“These are the kids who would fall by the wayside at another studio," says Warley, who has directed The Ensemble since its inception 15 years ago. “They'd say, 'I can't be on the team? I'll go somewhere else with a team I can be on.' But in my program, I don't lose people." With a fine-tuned blend of technique and performance, plus a healthy dose of fun, Warley has turned The Ensemble into a company any kid would feel lucky to be a part of. “They may come in unhappy," he says, “but I have confidence that I can turn this experience into something they're excited about."

Warley didn't always know he wanted to be a dance educator. When he graduated from Lehman College, he planned to pursue a performance career in New York City. Then he met Frank Hatchett. “I remember observing the way he taught class, and there was so much passion and joy," says Warley, who went on to assist Hatchett in class and at conventions for several years. “Dancers walked out of his class changed. Seeing that magic drew me to dance education."

Still, Warley danced with Peter Pucci Plus Dancers and did some commercial work while finding his way to Center Stage. He signed on to teach jazz one day a week as a way to supplement his performance income. But Center Stage's artistic director George Warren saw something special in him and asked him to increase his time commitment. “Jason had such a love of kids, plus this amazing technical talent," Warren says. “But, most important, he had the humor and personality that allows kids to continue the joy they had in their junior years of dancing."

Warren offered Warley an important role—to develop a program for those kids who weren't up for the technical demands or the time commitment of the senior company. It didn't take much convincing. Warley took on the challenge with gusto, and The Ensemble (originally called The Jazz Cats) was born.

He began to spend three to four days a week at the studio, running rehearsals and teaching technique classes. And over the years, his creative ideas have consistently transformed groups of not-quite-there-yet kids into happy, confident dancers who quickly improve. After a few years in The Ensemble, they often end up making it into the elite team, but Warley says that's not the goal. In fact, some choose to stay in The Ensemble even after being accepted to the more advanced team. Given the opportunities The Ensemble grants them, it's no wonder they want to stick around.

For starters, Warley schedules two or three trips to NYC every year exclusively for The Ensemble. In the early years, he'd take them to Broadway Dance Center for professional classes with those he'd previously trained with—Hatchett, Sheila Barker and Kat Wildish, for example. On recent trips, he's rented a studio in the city and hired instructors to teach private master classes. Afterward, the group might catch a matinee before heading back to New Jersey—Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater or a Broadway show. (On their last trip, they saw Newsies.)

He also puts on an annual student choreography showcase, where Ensemble dancers perform solos they've choreographed. Warley points out that, while The Ensemble attends a limited number of regional competitions, this extra performance opportunity is a way to remove any shadow that might be cast by the elite team.

“When their focus isn't necessarily on competition, I see them grow more as people," he says. “When they compete, they do get a platinum here and there, but when they don't win, I don't see disappointment. They're really just happy to be dancing. I think that shows that the program works."

Warley makes sure to reward the dancers' hard work in the studio—often in an off-the-wall way, like with an impromptu Halloween party. And every Ensemble dancer is a winner at his annual Biscuit Awards. He acts as emcee for the Oscars-like exclusive dress-up event and hands out fun prizes like “The Pirouette Princess Award" for the best turner, or “The Walking Diva Award" for the dancer with the best jazz walks. “It's the silliest thing, but the dancers look forward to it all year," he says. “And to this day, alumni from years ago will come back for it."

After graduation, Ensemble dancers generally dance in college, but most don't go on to dance professionally. Even so, their allegiance to The Ensemble runs deep. “My friends from Center Stage and I are always reminiscing about the great times we had, and we still miss Jason's technique classes," says Aziza Gazieva, one of Warley's first Ensemble students, who is now an analyst at a bank. “Those years with The Ensemble were crucial for me. I didn't have the best turns or the best leaps, but Jason pulled something out of me that no other teacher was able to. He taught me confidence." Gazieva has rarely missed a Biscuit Awards ceremony.

Warley has made his mark on countless students—but this year's group may be his last. With only 13 members, the current Ensemble is smaller than usual (the team has been as big as 25), so he's taking the opportunity to focus on another venture, Man In Motion, a network of 40 male dance instructors and choreographers he formed in 2012 as a resource for studios. “When I travel for workshops and master classes, there's often just one boy in class, and I've had many studio owners say, 'It's great that he finally gets to dance with a male teacher,'" says Warley.

Meanwhile at Center Stage, faculty member Danielle Mondi is shadowing Warley to eventually take charge of The Ensemble, along with Victoria Moots. The three are documenting the curriculum, and Warley plans to remain involved as a consultant. “Jason has made The Ensemble such a joyful place, and he'll always be its guardian angel," says Warren. “Wherever life takes Jason, his work with The Ensemble will live on."

Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.

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Dancer Diary
Claire, McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."


In 2019, NYCB came calling: Resident choreographer Justin Peck visited Houston Ballet to set a new work titled Reflections. Peck immediately took to Chan and passed his praises on to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. Chan was invited to take class with NYCB for three days in January 2020, and shortly thereafter was offered a soloist contract.

The plan was to announce his hiring in the spring for the fall season that typically begins in September, but, of course, coronavirus postponed the opportunity to next year. Chan is currently riding out the pandemic in Huizhou, Guangdong, China, where he was born and trained at the Guangzhou Art School.

We talked to Chan about his training journey—and the teachers, corrections and experiences that got him to NYCB.

On the most helpful correction he's ever gotten:

"Work smart, then work hard to keep your body healthy. Most of us get injuries when we're tired. When I first joined Houston Ballet, I was pushing myself 100 percent every day, at every show, rehearsal and class. That's when I got injured [a torn thumb ligament, tendinitis and a sprained ankle.] At that time, my director taught me that we all have to work hard, memorize the steps and take corrections, but it's better to think first because your energy is limited."

How it's benefited his career since:

"It's the secret to me getting promoted to principal very quickly. When other dancers were injured or couldn't perform, I was healthy and could step up to fill a higher role than my position. I still get small injuries, but I know how to take care of them now, and when it's OK to gamble a little."

Chan, wearing grey pants and a grey one-sleeved top, partners Jessica Collado, as she arches her back and leans to the side. Other dancers behind them are dressed as an army of some sort

Chun Wai Chan with Jessica Collado. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet

On his most influential teacher:

"Claudio Muñoz, from Houston Ballet Academy. The first summer intensive there I couldn't even lift the lightest girls. A month later, my pas de deux skills improved so much. I never imagined I could lift a girl so many times. A year later I could do all the tricky pas tricks. That's all because of Claudio. He also taught me how to dance in contemporary, and act all kinds of characters."

How he gained strength for partnering:

"I did a lot of push-ups. Claudio recommended dancers go to the gym. We don't have those kinds of traditions in China, but after Houston Ballet, going to the gym has become a habit."

On his YouTube channel:

"I started a YouTube channel, where I could give ballet tutorials. Many male students only have female teachers, and they are missing out on the guy's perspective on jumps and partnering. I give those tips online because they are what I would have wanted. My goal is to help students have strong technique so they are able to enjoy the stage as much as they can."

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!"

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