General 4-1-2004

I Want to Dance: Springboard

As part of our coverage of young people in the arts, Lightsey Darst writes about a group of young dancers--Springboard--and their show at the Southern--"Mianiatures"-- in March.

“I want to dance.”
There are fourteen dancers in the Springboard Dance program at Ballet Arts Minnesota, thirteen young women and one young man. They range in age from sixteen to twenty-two, with most still in high school; they come from the greater Twin Cities area (except Hilliary Wolfe, who makes the trip to and from Rochester every day). They train six days a week, at least three hours each day (since classes begin at 1:45, they must arrange time off from their schools); their lives are school, dance, and homework. They take classes in ballet technique, pointe, partnering, modern, jazz, and other forms; they
perform several times a year, but have only one show entirely to
themselves–Miniatures, at the Southern this weekend.

Ask them why they work so hard and they go blank with the obviousness of it: “If you love it you do it all the time.” Ask them when they realized they wanted to dance and they don’t know where to begin: “I’ve been dancing forever.” At a rehearsal for the performance, they throw themselves at steps, fast passages they can’t quite finesse, pirouettes they can’t land–then, with beautiful luck, comes a triple turn right on the music, a leap with four feet of air between the body and the floor. They’re not sure yet what will work and what won’t, and they’re willing to try anything. They
try on moods–coquette, prophet, temptress, showgirl; sometimes they fit, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes they fit so uneasily that you know you’re watching a dancer touch a future she’s not ready to enter. They’re poised, serious, attentive when a choreographer gives corrections; this is a business for them. At the same time they’re eager and excited to be onstage at the Southern; when the choreography calls for enthusiasm, they don’t have
to pretend.

When professional dancers from the James Sewell Ballet take their turn (Penelope Freeh, Matthew Keefe, and Justin Leaf, in a haunted, needful moment choreographed by company member Benjamin Johnson), they reveal what might be inside these young dancers. It’s not so much the pared-down bodies, the strict architecture of their lines, but their pure presence of the professionals: they don’t dance, they feel by moving. They forget the stage, the steps; they forget themselves, and at the same time find themselves, in one moment after another of movement. The Springboard dancers don’t melt into the dance, not yet. Young, they can‚t take themselves for granted; their personalities shift and glimmer behind the dance, making this performance feel intimate, a chance to know them.

Where will they go from here? Everyone at the rehearsal knows the slim odds of becoming a professional ballet dancer. These dancers are all talented and well-trained, but “very few” will go on in classical ballet, Ballet Arts artistic director Bonnie Mathis says; this thought lines the face of one dancer as she grows into a difficult balance and trembles in the students’ voices as they talk about why they’re in Springboard. “You have to be very dedicated,” Mathis says. Good basic training is essential, as is financial and emotional support from families; but there’s also an element of luck in
getting a job. The Springboard members know what to do to become
professional ballet dancers–summer programs, performances, building a resume, audition tapes, auditions for companies–but they can’t entirely control the outcome.

But the emphasis this weekend isn’t on classical ballet: the Graduation Ball, an old-fashioned display of coquetry, pantomime, and set dances, opens the night, but after that works by area choreographers branch off into other modes–tango, modern, jazz. And that, Mathis believes, is what will happen for these dancers: they’ll find their own paths in dance. Mathis sees the choreographers as mentors: their various experiences “enrich [the students’] imagination as to what could possibly happen.” There are many dance lives, and from the choreographers the students learn they can balance two careers (Carl Flink), join family and dance (Ben Johnson), or come to dance later (Wynn Fricke). When Fricke talks to her dancers, she‚s at once businesslike (“Let’s try the spin with straight legs”) and gentle, wishing them good luck. In the theater, while other pieces are rehearsed, she keeps her eyes
on the stage; Springboard is “a wonderful opportunity for them,” she says, her voice wistful, hopeful.

Forget about the uncertain future for the moment. They’re dancing now. On opening night, the glitches are gone. Emma Salmon’s pretty-footed Pigtail (in the Graduation Ball) fills the stage
with her lively expressions; Jennifer Freudenthal holds her balances and prolongs her turns right up to the full edge of the music. In a
tango-inspired piece choreographed by Emilie Plauché Flink, Laura Sutter finds a dreamy inner reservoir that allows her to flow through music, never at a loss, never stilled and waiting for a note. Canae Weiss, with her long-limbed, thin body, cuts the floor into countries in a deeply religious piece by Wynn Fricke (set to traditional Swedish herding calls); I’m pleading for this brief “Call” to be expanded into an evening’s song. Pareena Lim is athletic and direct throughout, an arrow in the air, a soldier when she stands. And it‚s worth going just to see Constance Sousek try her strength in twisting jumps and floaty handstands in Carl Flink’s lovely, moving elegy. Altogether, the Springboard Company’s strength, musicality, and grace are impressive.

As Bonnie Mathis and I were watching the rehearsal and talking about the future for these dancers, Mathis spotted a young woman walking up the stairs in the dark theater. “She might be a ballet dancer,” Mathis whispered. And she is.