Big, bold and original: The 13th Annual Young Choreographer’s Festival

Emilia Stuart's 'Love Grows Here' at the 2024 Young Choreographer's Festival. Photo by Jaqlin Medlock.
Emilia Stuart's 'Love Grows Here' at the 2024 Young Choreographer's Festival. Photo by Jaqlin Medlock.

Symphony Space, New York, NY.
June 28, 2024.

It’s sometimes said that the upcoming generation of dance artists is continuously upping the technical ante – faster, higher, more intricate, more turns – and also finding their own unique daring with concept and aesthetic. I observed clear evidence for those claims at the 13th Annual Young Choreographer’s Festival (YCF). The athleticism and originality on offer were undeniably dazzling. 

On the other hand, some will ask what we may lose when we push for the bigger, faster, more aesthetically daring. I also thought about those concerns with this program…and have no answers myself, just curiosities. Yet, one thing seems certain: young dancemakers are a true force to be reckoned with, and we do well to remember that. 

Some works were notably musical, even true embodiments of their scores. The program opened with Kyler Durrance’s Rhapsody, set to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Durrance’s inventive movement vocabulary – and it being executed by a large, strong ensemble offering a perfectly understated level of theatrical campiness – matched the score’s grandeur. Coming before Producer Emily Bufferd’s opening remarks, it felt like a catchy newspaper lede that pulled me right into the story, the story of the program. 

Brianna Dawkins’ Stepping Into the Light was also inextricably tied to its score, Dylema’s “What If A Black Girl Knew?” The poetic score interrogated cultural messages that weigh women of color down. Yet, they rise again, just as the quartet of excellent Black female dancers did after an unseen force pushed them down toward the stage. 

With both accent and continuity, subtlety and power, they rode the rhythms of Dylema’s voice with pure sensitivity and soul. Toward the end, standing together downstage and facing the audience, they called out the score’s poignant mantra. I wondered if some young woman (or women) of color in the audience would see it, and perhaps be changed for the better…maybe forever. I hoped so. 

Gemma Leary’s Organized Chaos was just that – beautifully so. It closely embodied (what sounded like to me) the score of jazz improvisation: riffs, scales and more. The quartet of dancers committed 200 percent to every quick jump, intricate gesture and expansive lengthening. I don’t think I’ve seen this concept explored before, and I love that Leary did. I found it delightfully quirky, and won’t forget it anytime soon. 

Other works called upon a costume accent, as part of concept. Modern Girls from YCF Alumni Guest Jaclyn Walsh had a joyful ensemble of six – bursting at the seams with pure vivacity – dancing in sparkly sequined jackets. The loud and proud Me Some More, from another Alumni Guest Alex Mitchell, had dancers in wigs and dresses…for half the piece, before they left those accouterments behind in favor of black tops and bottoms. 

These costume accents didn’t grab me as notably meaningful – but I also reminded myself that it’s (more than) okay for something to just be enjoyable (and that they were). Beyond that, the stellar and very original movement, eating up every inch of the stage, kept me more than satisfied. 

Yarden Sharon’s Blissful Blues, with costumes distinct as summer street clothes,was a tastefully sultry romp. Dancers rolled their hips and accented their spines in the simple joy and energy of youth. Them taking moments for strong eye contact, as well as for turning the dial down on speed and size of movement, reminded me just how impactful those tools can be – as potent contrast to the bigger, faster, stronger. 

A few other works were more postmodern – daring in a softer, more mysterious way. Frances Rose Koper’s ethereal Do you remember me, when I had all this desire in my eyes? brought to mind something of the Greek muses, of Isadora Duncan dancing in draperies. The movement vocabulary offered the sort of fresh, subtle intricacy that made me want to know more – for the story to keep revealing itself. Even without narrative and without personally knowing these dancers, I felt as if this trio was moving from their deepest truths. 

After intermission, Kayla Laufer’s Harmonic Fusion paired a dance duet with a live violinist (Anna Jarboe). While certainly grounded in rock-solid technique, the work was less athletic and more enigmatic. Softer, slower moments allowed the trust and connection between the two dancers (Laufer and Harry Sukonik) to simmer, to resonate. Why were they wearing black masks that covered their entire faces? What drove them, moved them? With this sort of postmodern work, the unanswered questions are actually satisfying (at least for this writer) – and that rang true here. 

Emily Johnson’s They Needed No Words was similarly thought-provoking. The movement reflected the repetition in Philip Glass’ “Knee Play 5,” embodying stasis in an unrelenting cycle. The dancers’ highly pleasing movement quality – resonant, fluid, grounded – had something more liberated ringing through that stasis. Ultimately, that prevailed. No words needed, indeed.   

The majority of the pieces in the program employed a large ensemble, moving with pulsing power and size, to tell a story…or build a mood, or simply an aesthetic. Second in the program, in fact, was Izzy’s Pereira’s Look Within: supple and reflective, but also strong and highly virtuosic. Circularity in movement, on the body and stage level, had me thinking about continuing cycles. At the same time, linear movement allowed these performers to call upon their gorgeous lines. Purely as a curiosity, a few rhythmic accents had me wondering what more of those might have contributed to the work. 

Lerato Ragontse’s imagistic Perpetuity surged with strength and accent, yet also smoothly moving momentum. There was both sparkle and ripple – and, along with the dancers’ gold costumes, I envisioned a golden whirlpool. The following work, Paige Rocker’s Burn With Us, also conjured a strong image – this one of, yes, fire. Spatial and energetic relations between the dancers – of reaching, weight sharing, of propelling into new directions – felt like the actions of a community centering support. 

Mahin Master’s emotional Two Men in Love, as the largest ensemble yet in the program, reminded me just how powerful a stage completely full of moving humans can be. The movement vocabulary was bold and bracing in both its size and intricacy. Sydney Kuhn’s evocative Daffodil, which closed the first act, felt successful on kinetic, aesthetic, and storytelling levels (and it is no simple task to tell a story in a short work). The movement’s inventiveness and fiery tenacity brought me in. Narrative nuances kept me there.

YCF Alumni Guest Gina Menichino’s I’m Mad As Hell had a smaller ensemble than some of the other works that I’m grouping together here, but the pure kinetic power they created was no less. They filled the stage just as much – and with a unique mood for the program, that of anger. The dancers effectively embodied that feeling through physical tension, while still allowing their momentum to flow. Brava! 

Closing the show was Hannah Weinmaster’s masculine atychiPhobia. The atmosphere was enticingly edgy, and the all-male ensemble of nine erupted with kinetic vigor. They did not come to mess around. The speed and complexity of some gestural sections, and pure athleticism of others, was so high-octane that I had to remind myself to close my mouth (I think that my jaw did drop). 

I’ve saved (what I think were) my two personal favorites for last. In Emilia Stuart’s Love Grows Here, the precision of dancers moving in white had me thinking of something pure, something full of possibility…but also somber. Stuart and her dancers created a dynamic range (in both timing and movement quality) that had me not only fascinated, but also emotionally invested. I understood the stakes, and deeply felt them. 

Karlie Lynn Zabin’s heartwarming Graceland also had me emotionally invested. Set to Paul Simon’s song of the same title, it felt like clear proof that pure sweetness can guide beautiful dance art. Angst has its place, and so does heart. It wasn’t as athletic, as technically challenging as some other works in the program – but it impacted me more. I think that was because for me, it felt grounded in something truly honest. 

I think thatit behooves young artists to remember works like this when they find themselves drawn to virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake (which I say with objectivity and curiosity, not judgment nor derision). To have technical command (which every single involved artist demonstrated), originality of vision, and that ability to make audience members truly feel something…that often takes time and simply living life. 

So, young artists, keep creating and staying open to what comes your way…and that will also come. These artists – and, from what I’ve seen, their generation at large – have strong foundations for that openness and exploration to do what they do. I eagerly await what they can create and the impact that they can make. Thank you to the Young Choreographer’s Festival for a window into all of those dynamics, and until next year! 

By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.

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