So You Think You Can Dance choreographer Jason Winters wants to be your dance mentor. Yes, it’s true! Winters and a select team of choreographers and teachers are coming together to offer The Movement Contemporary Dance Program, a 16-week experience aimed at young dancers between the ages of thirteen and eighteen years old. Auditions for the first session were recently held at Bangarra Studios. Here, Winters speaks to Dance Informa’s Grace Gassin about this exciting new program and what this opportunity means for young dancers.
Winters’ notable dance collaborations and achievements are too many to list, but include working as Assistant choreographer and dancer in acclaimed choreographer Mia Michaels’ dance company, RAW. He has also worked with Marc Dendy, Demetrius Klein, Odyssey Dance Utah, Southern Ballet Theater, Sol Kerzner’s Atlantis Resort, Paradise Island, Bahamas, Radio City Music Hall Productions, The Walt Disney World Co., Cirque Du Soleil, European artists such as Anna Vissi, for the Grammy Awards and on numerous Superbowl half-time shows alongside artists such as Madonna, Eminem, Elton John, NSYNC, Aerosmith, Mary J. Blige, Moby and The Blue Man Group. His teaching credentials include a guest faculty position at Broadway Dance Centre and Steps on Broadway in New York and he has taught master workshops with many organizations in North America including The Joffrey Ballet School and American Dance Awards. In Australia, Winters has worked for Brent Street, The Utopian Dream Dance Festival and choreographed for Short + Sweet Dance, The Australian Dance Festival, and Mardi Gras.
Why did you decide to start a youth contemporary dance program?
“I started The Movement Contemporary Dance Program because I wanted to share my 20-plus years of experience navigating the highs and lows of being a dancer, performer, choreographer and teacher. I have also found that the best time frame for a dancer to receive this information is between thirteen and eighteen years of age, studying directly under the mentorship of a professional who is currently working in the industry.”
How does The Movement differ to other programs already out there?
“This 16-week experience will begin by asking each individual dancer what their hopes, dreams, goals, fears, ambitions, and obstacles are, speaking in terms of their past, their present, immediate future, and long-term life plan. The program is holistic in its approach, focusing on the body, mind, and spirit within every lesson. The Movement program is not just dance training, but life training, about how to be a healthy, respectful, confident, and competent human being.”
You recently held your first auditions for The Movement. How many dancers attended and how many will be selected from the group?
“I was incredibly excited to have 66 dancers at our first audition, held at Bangarra Studios. It was very difficult to choose which dancers were ready for this program, as many of the young artists who attended were so wonderful and gave so much of themselves. I decided on 26, and although that is more than I had planned for, I have put a cap to never exceed 30 for this level of training.”
What were you looking for in your dancers?
“I will be simple and honest for you and your readers… I am looking for someone who still believes they have something to learn, and listens to corrections and instructions. Now beyond that, I of course look for a dancer who has fantastic musicality, fearlessness, intelligence, and also the will to never give up.”
Can you give us some insights into what your program — which promises exclusive mentorship as well as training — will involve for the successful dancers?
“Well, I don’t want to give away all the secrets, but I can describe it with a very simple story… where I come from in the U.S., there are so many dancers with so many dreams. There are also so many jobs in an endless array of genres and styles, either as a performer or a creator. Usually practical experience over MANY years is required to even come close to absorbing all the information you need to have a career that spans your entire life.
Yes, you could train at a dance studio, or attend a university. You could also dive straight into auditions and professional jobs around the world. But there is only one experience that can truly encompass every aspect of how to successfully become an artist and that is to become an assistant or apprentice to a great choreographer or master teacher!
I was lucky to have not one mentor, but three… in three different genres. The person I spent the most time working under, and who I learned the most from, was Mia Michaels. I learned about every aspect of working and living as an artist, and that is what I would like to pass on to the future generations.
The dancers in this program will have me personally for three hours every Monday evening, and from time to time I will bring in special guests, both local and international, who are masters in their field, to share their insights and personal experiences as well.”
Why did you choose to make it 16 weeks?
“The program is 16 weeks per session because it is about being committed and staying focused on a task which has a clear start and finish — much like a project company or development program that works intensely and then allows certain members to move on and new members to join. Life is all about cycles and flow, just like dance.”
Can you tell us the teachers and choreographers who will be involved?
“All I can tell you is big names… BIG!”
Given the emphasis on mentoring in your program, do you and the others working with you choreographers hope to maintain contact with the dancers from The Movement once the 16 weeks is over?
“The dancers will have all the information they need to continue their journey after they finish the program. But that being said, because the ages range from thirteen to eighteen, some dancers might need to do the program two times, three times, or even four times. This is serves as an incentive to me to use an flexible outline, one that covers the essential elements I feel are necessary, and at the same time allows for new teachers, choreographers and alternate experiences to be introduced as the opportunities arise.”
What do you think is the biggest hurdle for young dancers in the industry today and what advice would you give to help them overcome it?
“To be honest, I feel the biggest obstacle to overcome today is motivation… both internally and externally. Internally, young people in general are bombarded every second of the day, with numerous possibilities and multiple choices. If they don’t feel they like something or aren’t good at something at first glance, they simply move on to another option. But, life gives us challenges and obstacles along the way in order for us to grow and learn, so really those moments that make us nervous or uncomfortable are probably the things we should investigate further.
Externally, there are not enough mentors in many young people’s lives who are willing to persevere for the length of time it may take for each individual student to feel they have accomplished the task at hand. To be a great mentor, is to never give up on a student who is standing in front of you and making their best effort to take on the challenge you have set forth for them. This is why I don’t just teach dance, but I teach a practice of mind, body and spirit connection that will hopefully be valuable to every human being I come into contact with. This is what it takes to be successful, what it takes to be balanced and happy, and definitely what it takes to be an artist.”
And finally, for our readers, what under-rated piece of advice do you wish you had received as a young dancer or choreographer?
“What a great question… and one of the many I will answer specifically for those dancers who become a part of The Movement Contemporary Dance Program!”
To follow Jason Winters and The Movement, go to the official Facebook event page www.facebook.com/themovementdanceprogram
By Grace Gassin of Dance Informa.
Photo (top): Jason Winters. Photo courtesy of Winters