Are youth dance companies choreographing the industry’s next big steps?
By Paul Ransom.
“It develops artists, rather than just dancers,” says Ruth Osborne, Artistic Director of the QL2 Centre for Youth Dance in Canberra.
What she’s referring to is the burgeoning but still often overlooked ‘youth dance’ sector in Australia. From her base in the nation’s capital, Osborne works tirelessly to foster not only the next generation of talent but the whole idea of specialist, serious youth dance companies.
“A youth dance company can be all sorts of things to all sorts of people,” she expands. “It’s a really good base for those wanting a career in dance … For others, it gives them an opportunity to perform with other like-minded people who are willing to commit to a five or six month project together; but perhaps they’re not going to choose dance as a career. It gives those people a great opportunity to still have dance in their lives without having to take on the full commitment of a profession.”
Meanwhile, tucked away in Launceston, Tasmania, another of this country’s passionate youth dance advocates, Becky Hilton from Stompin’ is keen to dispense with some of the limiting misnomers that surround youth dance. “I think of it as a completely valid expression of the artform in itself,” she states firmly. “Young people have really incredible things to say about what it is to be young. Youth dance is not ‘on the way’ to somewhere, it is somewhere.”
For Hilton, ‘youth’ is not an excuse, not a convenient get out clause. “I’m not comfortable with the qualifiers,” she argues. “Its good art, rather than this patronising ‘let’s teach them how to dance so they can get a real job’ kinda thing.”
What that means for the dancers at Stompin’ is very clear. “Nobody wants to be in a piece of rubbish. It doesn’t matter how great the process was or how supported or validated you feel if the end result is something you’re embarrassed about, it kind of cancels all that out.”
Back at QL2, Ruth Osborne concurs. Of her own charges, she notes, “It’s great to see young people really committed to full length performances, rather than three minute numbers.”
As the driving force behind Sydney’s youMove Company, Kay Armstrong is equally fired up. Companies like hers she contends, are absolutely critical to maintaining the health of the broader Australian dance community and, therefore, have a duty to insist on high standards.
“Young people are tomorrow,” she affirms. “They are the ambassadors of the dance form for the years to come; and the experience that they have now will impact on the depth of investigation that will occur in dance in the future … The word ‘youth’ doesn’t have to preclude sophistication or innovative ways of making dance. I think it should include all of those things and more.”
Beneath all the ‘industry’ and ‘career’ chatter though, youth dance companies serve an even deeper purpose, something that goes beyond mere apprenticeship. For young dancers, Armstrong insists, the experience is often transforming. “They find themselves in it. It’s about waking up to their own power. I’ve seen it happen this year with the guys in youMove; and you wouldn’t be able to quantify it, but you know that something has definitely shifted for each and every one of those performers.”
Stompin’s Becky Hilton underlines the point further. “Dance is such a discipline; just having to turn up and do it, repeat it and track getting better. They are really great, basic life skills.”
And yet there is a broad consensus that the youth dance sector in Australia is seriously under-supported. In fact, Kay Armstrong simply laughs when the question is raised. “I have failed to secure a single cent from the various funding bodies,” she reveals laconically. “Actually, I have often had to support youMove myself. But y’know, I haven’t done that to be a martyr; it’s much more like an investment I choose to make.”
QL2’s Ruth Osborne picks up the thread, “There are quite a few people doing really terrific work but with very little support … but even so, I’m really heartened by how many dancers are coming out of these companies and moving into a professional career.”
Assisting this process, Osborne explains that the sector’s peak body, the Australian Youth Dance Companies Group, helps individual members with resourcing, dancer exchanges and the like. “We certainly all help each other out where we can,” she says, “because in the end we’re all motivated by the same thing.”
There is no doubt that youth dance in Australia is being fuelled by the extraordinary passion of both young dancers and their dedicated mentors.
As Kay Armstrong observes, “I just know that if there had been something like this when I was younger how important and amazing that would have been … I think that what we do is to help young people enter the community with more confidence, not only in themselves but to create networks, build industry capacity and create new work.”
Indeed; create tomorrow.
Very top photo: youMove Company, Photography by Heidrun Lohr from This Way Up, Campbelltown Arts Centre, June 09. Choreography by Anton.