The screams were absolutely deafening. I was overwhelmed by the excitement and energy that surrounded me in the packed Roper Performing Arts Center as the curtain went down to end the Welcome Performance Thursday night.
I laughed out loud as the screams continued for quite some time; the students’ infectious enthusiasm filled the air and pressed against the walls. The hundreds of high school dance students in the audience were part of the 9thRegional High School Dance Festival hosted by Deborah Thorpe (the RHSDF Director) and the Governor’s School for the Arts in Norfolk.
Affiliated with the National High School Dance Festival, the Regional festival (occurring every two years) is an opportunity for students, faculty, and colleges from around the East Coast region (and beyond) to come together. There were master classes, workshops, auditions, performances, and even an outdoor improv jam. This year’s festival hosted over 1,000 people. Students from 53 high schools and magnet schools participated; dance faculty from 36 different colleges and universities were in attendance, as well as professional dancers, artistic directors, and guest artists. From Thursday to Sunday, the festival days were chock-full of dance events, and Granby Street was filled with dancers.
The students in the Festival were able to take master classes in almost every dance style imaginable. There were classes in ballet, modern, hip hop, jazz, West African Dance, Israeli Folk Dance, tap, contemporary partnering, blindfolded ballet and more. Yoga and Pilates classes were also offered.
But there was more going on than just classes. There were student workshops in such subjects as injury prevention, music for dancers, improvisation, and body alignment. Teachers also had the opportunity to participate in workshops and discussions on alignment, anatomy, and modifications.
Repertory Workshops gave the students experience with choreography by Alvin Ailey (taught by Elbert Watson), Mark Morris, Erick Hawkins, Twyla Tharp (taught by Norfolk native Stacy Caddell), Traditional Japanese Dance, and many more.
I was able to observe several of the classes held at theTRDance Center on Friday morning. A class I was especially looking forward to was one of the Advanced Ballet classes taught by Yvonne Borree. Yvonne is a Norfolk native who danced with New York City Ballet for 22 years. She joined the company in 1988, rose through the ranks to become Principal in 1997, and danced her farewell performance with NYCB last June. The students in her class at the Festival watched attentively as she skillfully demonstrated her sharp, highly technical combinations.
In the studios down the hall, Takako Segawa (a guest artist from Japan) taught a Contemporary Dance class to a very full house, and Iyun Harrison from Cornish College taught a Men’s Ballet Class. I hopped from studio to studio, watching various sections of the classes.
I stayed to watch the next round of classes in those three studios: Intermediate/Advanced Variations (en pointe), taught by Point Park University’s Chair of Dance, Susan Stowe; Contemporary Partnering, with Stephen Pier from The Hartt School; and Advanced Ballet with Richmond Ballet’s Ballet Master, Malcolm Burn.
I was thrilled to see a male student in the pointe/variations class; it can be quite advantageous for male dancers to study pointe, because it provides added strength in muscles in the legs and ankles, and improves balance. Contemporary Partnering was another especially full class, which focused on the partners using their weight and pressure to counterbalance and create interdependent positions and movements. Malcolm Burn had the same swift energy and wit that I remembered from when I studied Partnering classes with him at Richmond Ballet many moons ago. His combinations were smooth and lyrical, and very demanding.
To give a sense of just how many classes and workshops took place during the Festival, on Friday alone (between 8:30am and 4pm), there were more than 60 classes and workshops held at the Marriott Waterside, GSA Studios, TRDance Center, or the VA Arts Festival Studio.
A major element to this Festival is the students’ opportunity to audition. Faculty from various colleges, universities, and professional schools came to the Festival as recruiters. Auditions were held Thursday, the first day of the festival, in four separate audition classes. Around 400 select students (mostly high school seniors, and some juniors) have the ability to audition in front of a panel of these faculty members, not only vying for acceptance into the programs, but also for scholarships. Around 60 scholarships were awarded last weekend, totaling roughly $200,000.00.
I spoke with a high school faculty member (as we were both observing classes on Friday) who told me about one of her dance students, a junior, who had been accepted into eleven programs the day before. Instead of traveling around the country to all of those separate schools, or sending in an audition video, he was able to come to this one Festival, and have the chance to audition, take classes, see performances … and go back home with the knowledge that he has eleven options. And there were so many other students like him, who went home from this amazing, fun, inspiring weekend, with acceptances and/or scholarships.
The Richmond Ballet started things off with the Welcome Performance Thursday night. The program: one of my favorite Balanchine classics, Valse Fantasie;After Eden, a contemporary pas de deux choreographed by John Butler; Ersher Vals, by Ma Cong; and Clowns and Others, by Salvatore Aiello. The entire performance was spectacular; both the soloists and corps de ballet dancers performed beautifully. I will always adore anything Balanchine, but After Eden and Clowns and Others were the high points of the evening for me. After Eden’s dark and haunting tone was riveting; Fernando Sabino and Maggie Small wonderfully portrayed the anguished Adam and Eve, and moved through the arduous and innovative lifts with great control. In contrast, the incredibly quirky and offbeat Clowns and Others integrated characteristics of clowns and mimes with classical ballet and music by Prokoviev. The unpredictable piano melody and hint of edge in the music was a perfect balance to the playful, silly, and mischievous vignettes in the ensemble piece. Choreographed by Salvatore Aiello, this is one of the most imaginative and ingenious ballets that I have ever seen. The program of both very classical and very innovative dance demonstrated the skill and versatility of the company.
The performances continued Friday with an Informal Concert in the afternoon at the Marriott, as well as an evening performance at the Roper. The Gala was Saturday evening at the Roper, with a performance by the Governor’s School dance students.
I was able to attend the Saturday afternoon show at the Roper, which was eight dance selections performed by eight different performing arts and magnet high schools that were participating in the Festival. Six of the eight dances were choreographed by students. All of the pieces were contemporary, but the music and the styles were all quite different. I was impressed by the maturity and professionalism the students displayed throughout their performance. There were so many wonderful moments during the show; the immense potential these dancers and student choreographers have is thrilling.
As I left the Roper Performing Arts Center that day, among the sea of students, I overheard them excitedly talking about the performance, which pieces were their favorites, and also talking about how they couldn’t decide which class to take next because they wanted to take them all. The students’ eagerness to learn, and their passion and fervor for dance, was electrifying.
The students that surrounded me that day are going to be a huge part of the future of dance. And the future looks bright. Very, very, very bright.
This article was originally published on AltDaily in March of 2011.