A line of young dancers drape themselves along the length of the electrical cord that yokes them all together. An electric hum underscores the pulse of a buzz saw and suddenly a beat begins to thump, a melody soars and the dancers break off into unique routines. Some movements are harmonic, weaving their way between each other seamlessly. At other stages, they are islands of individual movement. The piece is visceral and atmospheric.
The music fades and mentors Jamie and Mel applaud rapturously. They gather everyone in for a final pep talk before the kids all head home.
This was the first real run-through of the ‘opening piece’ for the upcoming Youth Dance Festival (Dance Fest).
Dance Fest is a Canberra success story, a quiet achiever, an institution.
Presented by Ausdance ACT and held at the Canberra Theatre, this is its 35th year cultivating the next generation of young dance artists. This year was its biggest endeavour yet: 39 high schools and colleges performed more than 60 pieces of dance over three nights in September.
“Dance Fest provides a platform for young people to express their ideas and opinions, and have their voices heard through dance. We aim to empower them to find their creative selves in an inclusive dance and theatre environment,” according to creative director Jamie Winbank.
The group performing the traditional ‘opening piece’ are aged from 13 to 18 years, with varied ability levels, eclectic dance backgrounds and learning abilities.
“Inclusivity is vital,” Jamie says. “Dance Fest is proud to be Australia’s biggest and most inclusive non-competitive dance festival. It is the only dance festival open to all high schools, colleges, government, public, non-government and private schools.”
The theme this year was Generation Next.
The opening piece explores underlying concepts of that theme: ideas of motivation, innovation and celebration.
Jamie takes me through how they worked alongside the young dancers from concept to finished piece.
“First we workshopped and brain-dumped ideas. We talked about how 2019 is the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing, the 70th anniversary of the Snowy Mountains Electric Hydro Scheme and the 40th anniversary of women winning the right to maternity leave. These significant milestones were innovative in their time, an inspiration to these young people, our future leaders and innovators.”
From this, dancers created a bank of words from which dance movements began to evolve.
In another exercise, Jamie and Mel presented a poem and inspiring texts from motivational speeches through the ages. The dancers formed freeze frames for each line, then these freeze frames flowed into the resulting movements and a dance sequence.
“We initiate movement by content, provide them the framework, the scaffolding – they’ve got to fill it in and make it theirs,” Jamie says. “It’s more than ‘5,6,7,8!”
Mel says that the power cords in the dance represent connection with others, generation of power, generation of connection.
Jamie has been the creative director and choreographic mentor for Ausdance ACT’s Youth Dance Festival since 2015. Mel is one of a handful of volunteers. A dance teacher, she has been through Dance Fest herself and is passionate about making the experience available to other young dancers.
During the week at Dance Fest, each school gets 20 minutes on stage for tech rehearsals and plot their lighting. They have already chosen the music; their dance is ready.
Dance Fest provide them with professional services, tech and lighting support, and a chance to perform on the most prestigious stage in Canberra.
There are three performance nights. That night’s cast of 20 performances will come in for warm-ups of their dance, and a whole cast rehearsal for the evening’s big finale where each group does a short recap of their piece.
Dance Fest runs with some support from artsACT within Ausdance ACT and continues with the assistance of generous production partners and media sponsors.
“We aim to keep Dance Fest as inclusive and accessible to all, but its future relies on the support of the community through philanthropy or sponsorship,” Jamie says.
Ausdance ACT is located at E-Block, Gorman Arts Centre Ainslie Avenue in Braddon.