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National Youth Dance Company & RIOT Company

(in between), RIOT Offspring

by David Mead

June 8, 2013 -- Sadler's Wlls Theatre, London, UK

The new National Youth Dance Company has been much heralded as being an important part of a policy of engaging further young people with dance, and sparking new opportunities for young artists and audiences to experience the richness and diversity of the art form.

The company is hosted by Sadler’s Wells, and this year comprises 19 girls and 11 boys aged 16 to 20, from as far afield as Plymouth and York, selected by audition. A condition of membership is that dancers must not be enrolled on a vocational dance course, although many are currently training on CAT (Centre for Advanced Training) programmes. Most have a contemporary dance or ballet background, although hip-hop and other styles are also represented. The company will be led each year by a different artistic director drawn from the roster of Sadler’s Wells Associate Artists, starting with Jasmin Vardimon. It meets for four intensive weeks per year in London and at regional venues, with funding of up to £400,000 per year is being provided by the Arts Council.

The title “(in between),” the debut work, comes from the idea that the dancers are trapped between childhood and adulthood, and between the force of the group and the power of the individual. There were certainly glimmers of that in the piece, although it was never really explored as much as it could have been.

“(in between)” certainly has “Vardimon” writ large through it. The opening picture could not be anyone else. The curtain rises to reveal the striking image of most of the dancers apparently invisibly suspended as they stood on their heads but with their bodies angled upstage. Then, suddenly, the curtain crashes down. No, not the shortest piece ever; it soon rises to reveal a forest of tree stumps, which we realise the dancers were previously using as supports.

In the twenty minutes or so that follows, dancers are chased over the stumps, which are also used as mini personal stages and stepping stones. Vardimon’s choreography relies hugely on numbers and repetition for effect. And it is sometimes very effective. One particularly memorable image has the cast each standing on one of the blocks, very gently swaying as if being brushed by a gentle breeze. Another has the dancers atop the stumps felled dramatically by two other cast members. It is possible to read an environmental message into this, but quite rightly, it is not pushed. The hint is enough. A forest backdrop manages to suggest space while simultaneously feeling claustrophobic. Adam Carree’s lighting is simple but effective.

The dancers performed with great aplomb. Put aside any notions of youth meaning lower standards. The unison work was not all it might have been but they looked close to a professional company. That such quality was achieved in just three weeks of rehearsals speaks volumes for them and Vardimon. The ending comes suddenly; so suddenly and unexpectedly that it left the clear impression of an unfinished piece, but I saw enough to want to see more.

Just how much the new company will be able to impact on young dancers beyond its members remains to be seen. Some have commented that it should not become simply another company, but that must be a worry. One should not decry the opportunities the new company provides for its members, but it is only for four weeks a year. I also struggle to reconcile the public funding for this against the lack of funding and provision for serious full-time pre-professional and vocational training for young contemporary dancers. The Centres for Advanced Training (CAT) are a good start but if technical standards are to improve and keep pace with developments abroad, much, much more is needed.

The evening combined stage debut of the National Youth Dance Company with another strand of the Sadler’s Wells work: engaging the wider community in dance.

“RIOT Offspring” is the third community-based cross-arts project that the theatre’s Creative Learning Team has overseen in as many years. Part of the theatre’s String of Riots programme, the project brought together five choreographers, around 100 local dancers of all ages from the local community, including from the noted Company of Elders and the Southbank Sinfonia. Although the work uses Stravinsky’s iconic score, the choreographers dispensed with the usual scenario and instead sought to explore contemporary reactions to the music and to themes of riots, rituals and riots.

If anything, the staging is even more visually striking than that for “(in between).” The stage is covered in shreds of torn newspaper that is waded through, thrown, used to conceal dancers and much more. In the first half in particular, large groups of dancers often move as one, often with two groups on opposing sides of the stage. The effect is not dissimilar to that in Pina Bausch’s “Rite.” These early sections, which seem to be much more a response to the music, are without doubt the most intense, and certainly the strongest and most engaging.

Later sections have a stronger hint of narrative, especially when the paper is cleared away. Shortly afterwards, when the Elders reappear there is the sense of a post-apocalyptic world. Other dancers appear in contamination suits, apparently rounding up the rest of the population. One effective scene sees the latter attempt to break through a cordon. They leap and are caught, or are simply tossed back.

Multiple choreographers rarely results in a work having an overall sense of being a single whole, though, and that was the case here. Although almost all the sections had impressive images, they did not gel particularly well. The dancing, though, especially from the group of emerging artists, who showed remarkable musicality, timing and togetherness, was often outstanding.

The National Youth Dance Company can be seen again at Sadler’s Wells as part of Sadler’s Wells Sampled on June 28 and 29, and on tour at Ashford (30 June), Leeds (20 July), Salford (21 July) and Bristol (27 July).

For more details about the NYDC, applications and workshops, see http://www.sadlerswells.com/page/national-youth-dance-company

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