Australian Youth Dance Festival going strong for 20 years

Australian Youth Dance Festival. Photo by LUSY Productions.
Australian Youth Dance Festival. Photo by LUSY Productions.

“Freedom, being bold and taking risks. I love that, and I love that for young people.” So says Alice Lee Holland, a 20-year dance veteran and now Artistic Director of the 10th biennial Australian Youth Dance Festival (AYDF). Indeed, for someone who has been working in the industry longer than some of the festival’s participants have been alive, Holland maintains a strong commitment to the notion of “youth dance” and what it can deliver.

Alice Lee Holland.

Alice Lee Holland.

However, this begs the obvious question: what exactly is youth dance? Is it anything more than a catch-all tag for under-20-somethings? “I’ve really had to ask myself that question in the curation of the program,” Hollands admits. “I think it’s actually easier to talk about what it’s not. So, it’s not just young people doing dance. That happens everywhere, as it should, and it’s wonderful, but I would consider ‘youth dance’ a sector of the industry, and especially the contemporary dance industry.”

She adds, “What’s really at its heart is a spirit of creation and collaboration and innovation. It’s about pushing the boundaries of what dance is and how people relate to it and about how dance creates culture.”

It’s a pretty big, nigh visionary statement, but it’s something that AYDF 2019 will consciously push as dancers from around the country and overseas (including Denmark, Ghana, UK) gather in Melbourne for five days of intense focus. As the festival’s AD says, “There’s a lot of youth dance festivals around, but this one’s small. It has a limited capacity, so the groups are always small, and they’re really working closely with a fantastic list of professional dance artists.”

Rather than following the performance-based festival model, AYDF concentrates on process, skills refinement and collaborative creation. Participants will have their workshop days sectioned into three – Dance, Develop, Make – with two Gala Performance showcase nights at Meat Market in North Melbourne.  

“So, it’s not just about dancing,” Holland explains. “It’s about the process, the creation, the collaboration; and being very open in a way that, sometimes, dance training doesn’t support.”

In saying this, Holland is pointing at the festival’s overarching theme — namely, revolutions per minute. Whilst this clearly relates to the wider world and the various polemics around politics, identity and environment, it also hints at a form breaking approach to the artform and asks questions about what dance might look like in 20 years.

“The body is an incredible thing, and if we can encourage young people to understand and be in command of their body, it just naturally means that they develop in the same way mentally, emotionally, socially, politically,” Holland argues. “So, there’s this sense of exploration that is so vital because we’re at this particular moment in the world where change is really necessary and young people are ready. But what they need is support and encouragement to fly.”

Alice Lee Holland.

Alice Lee Holland.

For AYDF’s director, the very nature of the festival (it gathers people for a focused burst), is significant in itself. “The festival experience is pivotal because it brings them together for a really intense week when they fall in love with one another and with dance again,” she elaborates. “There’s a vibrancy about the week that really brings to their attention that things really are in their hands.”

Beyond this, though, being part of AYDF is something that Holland herself cherishes. As someone steeped in youth dance (she ran STEPS Dance, now Co3 Youth, in Perth for six years), she is obviously inspired by the promise the festival participants embody. There is a kindly laugh in her voice as she reveals, “They’re so much more talented, and so much smarter than I was, or am, and I love that. Obviously, that could be confronting, but I find it amazing. It’s like, ‘I can’t wait to see how far you fly.’ It’s such a thrill to engage with young people as people.”

To this end, the festival’s youthful ensemble springs from diverse circumstances, with dance companies like Australia’s Yellow Wheel, India’s High Kicks and the CSF Traditional Music & Dance Ensemble from Ghana all taking part. Aside from ticking the diversity box, it underscores the festival’s desire to embrace a global humanity through dance.

The revolution, it seems, will take the form of contemporary dance. Viva la revolucion!

For more information on the Australian Youth Dance Festival, to be held from 7 – 12 July, in Melbourne, visit www.ausdancevic.org.au/aydf-tt.

By Paul Ransom from Dance Informa.

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