I remember the year we said, “Let’s start a youth performance company!” It was in response to all the talent coming out of Danceworks Mad Hot, but that wasn’t the only reason. We wanted a way to keep students in class and dancing. We wanted them to reach a higher level of technical expertise and to grow as artists. So in 2011, Danceworks Youth Performance Company stepped into the scene.
To this day, students continue to move from the Mad Hot program into our classes, and eventually for some, into the Company. But dancers also come from our classes and the broader community. It’s been a joy over the years, watching these students blossom into well-groomed young performing artists.
Leading up to this weekend’s performance of DanceLAB Teen, I wanted to sit down with Artistic Director of DYPC, Gina Laurenzi, who has been leading the company for the past two years, in order to share her experience with these young movers. I had the chance to hear from some of the dancers personally!
Deb: What makes working with DYPC so special? What do you learn from the students? Any good teacher knows that they learn as much as those they are teaching!
Gina: I have learned to never underestimate teens. I can give these dancers any material and they will work through it and ultimately bring a freshness to the work. When invited to join in on the choreography, they create work with more depth than I once thought possible. These dancers are always ready to learn something new and push the boundaries of their current movement vocabulary. In performance, I am always impressed by what they bring to the table; they demonstrate such joy and commitment on stage, as well as a visible respect and love for each other that has been built inside the studio and out.
Dani Kuepper, Artistic Director of Danceworks Performance Company, had much to add about working with DYPC for DPC’s June performance of the intergenerational opera experience Handel’s Bestiary, which was co-presented by Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Lynden Sculpture Garden.
“I was so impressed at the great work that Gina is doing with them, that is clearly seen and felt while watching them dance, but especially in working with them on Handel’s Bestiary,” Dani said. “I’ve worked with DYPC many times over the years but this time around, I felt a real change in how they approached the work. They were more focused and open-minded to what the possibilities could be. And they were able to adapt to the outdoor space easily, as well as handle casting changes internally. There was one dancer who wasn’t able to do the camp performance and the dancers quickly problem-solved independently, without needing me to make a single decision for them. This is not typical of middle school and high school aged dancers. It is not even typical of college level dancers! They are clearly being empowered to embrace their own intelligence and abilities and work together as a team. It is an inspiring thing and I look forward to working with them again!”
Deb: In 2016, DanceLAB Teen was introduced to Danceworks’ DanceLAB concert series, inviting DYPC members to perform in a series where other established and emerging artists are creating new work. This was an awesome step for the company. Can you share a little about your process that has enabled the company to rise to this caliber?
Gina: While DYPC dancers may take classes in ballet, jazz, tap, contemporary, ballroom and hip hop at Danceworks, they also study improvisation and develop their skills in dance-making through rehearsal; it is in adding these skills to their practice that they have become intuitive young choreographers. In building this year’s DanceLAB Teen concert, set choreography is introduced to the group and the skeleton of the show begins to form. I then begin to give dancers tasks, assignments, and sections to rearrange and manipulate.
I allow the dancers to borrow material, develop their own versions, and sometimes become something new entirely. Throughout the process, we often do some writing to brainstorm and call forth the dancers’ own experience and interpretations of the theme. At this point, dancers’ own material is worked upon and later, their choreography gets added into the structure to create a performance rich in the collaboration of artistic voices. Sprinkled throughout the performance are dancer-crafted solos; movement inspired by poetry; and improvisational elements.
According to Tess, who has danced with DYPC for two years but has been taking classes at Danceworks since the age of three, “Choreographing is a very challenging process, but that’s what makes it so rewarding. It is very easy to want to limit yourself when choreographing and second guess every move that you do. Once you let go of that, it’s amazing to be able to create your own dance and show others your creativity in your own unique way.”
Deb: How do you think being a part of a group like DYPC encourages the community-focused, compassionate behavior I have witnessed in your work?
Gina: While DYPC dancers’ ages range from 12 – 18, they have established deep friendships through their love of dance that transcend the age span. They support one another’s strengths and weaknesses and are sensitive to one another. “The girls are all very close, we love each other like our own little family,” says one dancer, Julia. They even created a family tree!
“I have been very impressed with the depth of friendships formed in DYPC,” Julia’s mother, Dawn, says. “Twelve to 18-year-old girls becoming friends, performing together, encouraging each other, helping their teammates through injuries and busy seasons. The girls are friends even though they attend many different schools, are in different grades, live all over the city in different communities, and are of different races. No one tells them that they have to be friends but they are. I think that DYPC is a beautiful picture of what kind of relationships can be formed when people, in this case kids, have a common purpose or goal.”
Gina: Last summer, through Andrea and Daniel Burkholder, DYPC was invited to perform at a block party in celebration of the life of Za’layia Jenkins, a nine-year-old girl who was killed by a stray bullet that entered her family’s home. Members of the community wanted to bring neighbors together; they came together in the streets, built and dedicated a garden, and gathered for performances. Several songs into DYPC’s performance, the track abruptly stopped. Our dancers, Serafina, Trinity and Julia, kept going. The sounds of the supportive and enthusiastic community became their score, rather than the music. It was quite a moving experience for these dancers to be embraced by the community and to be a part of a larger goal, of encouraging peace and compassion as we all move forward—together.
“DYPC opens up my world outside of my high school. I have the opportunity to dance, perform, and have fun with girls from all different areas of Milwaukee,” says Finley, who has been with the company for four years. “As a senior member, I enjoy working with and mentoring younger company members, as well as stepping into opportunities with DPC to broaden my dance background and training.” Finley has also assisted with Danceworks’ Summer Creative Arts Camps. “Every day I learn from the campers and professional staff exploring dance, art and theater adventures. I get the opportunity to be a part of the daily workings of Danceworks and see the hard work and efforts from staff to bring their love of the arts into the community! This inspires me to give back by teaching, and to continue to learn from all the talent that exists at Danceworks.”
Deb: DYPC has clearly grown its own legs within the organization and mission because of the depth of leadership and compassion you have provided. You now have four levels of company members. I can’t wait to see what’s next. So what’s next for DYPC?
Gina: Yes, in addition to our Premiere and Elite featured companies, which feature longtime teen members and most advanced movers, we now have two younger performance groups, Danceworks Minis and Danceworks Juniors, to better prepare interested dancers for higher levels of training and performance. In the coming year, these dancers will be featured in Halloween and year-end holiday concerts, as well as the annual DanceLAB Teen concert. A new spring concert has been added to the calendar for our more advanced performers, and you can catch all of our youth performers in the annual Danceworks showcase in June 2018, as well as at various events throughout Milwaukee.
Deb: Thank you Gina, and thank you dancers, Dani and Dawn (Schuessler) for contributing to this interview. And thank you to my Communications Director Hannah Pardee for helping me gather all this content! It’s clear that we have only just begun to see what DYPC can do under your artistic leadership!
I think it’s fitting to close with a quote from Tatyanna, who is completing her final year with DYPC. She started off as a tap dancer with Mad Hot and became one of the first members when the company was formed.
“DYPC gave me the chance to develop as an artist and gave me mentors who genuinely care about me. My peers and I are consistently cheered on, encouraged, complimented, and praised. [DYPC] has pushed me to my limits time and time again. It has helped me decide that I want to pursue a career in the arts.” (Tatyanna Melendez, pictured below.)
Danceworks Youth Performance Company members will perform in DanceLAB Teen this Saturday, August 19th, at 5:30pm and 7:30pm at the Danceworks Studio Theatre. Get your tickets here, and RSVP on Facebook!
Photos: Christal Wagner
Welcome to the Danceworks blog, where we're hoping to share a little bit more about the heart and soul behind Danceworks… what made us join the dance and keeps us dancing, what keeps us inspired, and where we can share some of the stories worth telling.