A Ballet Tech kids dancer took root not in a dance studio, but on the subway. In the year It was 1977 when choreographer Elliott Feld shared a train with elementary school children. To the layman, they were just kids, but Feld saw something more: These were potential dancers.
In partnership with the New York City Department of Education, he started a training program and eventually an independent public school. Today, it is a children’s dance created as part of Ballet Tech Performance in 1994, under the artistic direction of Dionne Figgins. In the past few years, the children – sixth through eighth grade – have been through a lot – the pandemic has not only interrupted their academic studies, but also their dance practice.
On Friday, the troupe returned to the Joyce Theater, taking the stage with a winning mix of discipline and bravado as they explored ballet, modern dance, tap and jazz. They fought to be artists: when their peers didn’t go the way they intended, they didn’t break down. They continued.
They had a good example before their eyes: Johnson Guo, a Ballet Tech alumnus and member of the Limon Dance Company, performed José Limon’s “Chacon” (1942) on the program. He was in the opening act of the night, Feld’s charming “A Yankee Doodle” (2015). Dressed in white unitards adorned with blue and red stars or strappy ankle boots, the young dancers lean forward and sway on their feet before returning to a rousing beat.
They shine in lonely moments. They saluted in style. And Guo, with the luxury and ability to carve out positions in Limon’s solo space, was a sign of the future if these young dancers chose to pursue it.
There were also new dances, original works by Figgins and faculty members: a collaboration between Robert La Fosse and Brian Reeder, each former member of American Ballet Theater and New York City Ballet, and Men Ka. In the earthy “Embers of…”, Ka echoed Alvin Aileen’s “Visions” — the piece of fabric at the back of the stage was a very obvious touch — and combined modern dance with John Coltrane’s “Blue World.”
The dancers had stiff, upright arms that bent at the elbows before hanging their heads up. The dancers were serious, but what was the embers they were shooting? It was never clear. There was plenty of jazz from La Fosse and Reeder’s “Ad Lib City,” a zingy ballet — the best new work of the night — set to Duke Ellington. Here, choreographers take the stage from the dancers’ training steps, small jumps and twirls, giving them the chance to be playful.
They stood for a moment, staring, arms folded. They slapped the arm. Dressed in black tights designed by Vernon Ross and Mondrian-inspired tops, the dance excelled in choreography, jauntiness and musical chanting, which saw the dancers move across the stage in reconstituted groups – mini kaleidoscopes of movement and colour. As you fly into the wing and back out again, you feel the footage increase.
At this point in the program, the children began to relax into their steps and enjoy dancing together. Beginning with the Gershwins’ “You Can’t Take It From Me” in “1956,” both collaborations appeared on each of Figgins’ two new works, as performed by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.
Figgins and Curtis Holland, who teaches tap at Ballet Tech, created a sweet dance battle. The dancers split into two, one for tap, the other for jazz dancing. Developed in mid-century modern ensembles, again by Ross, the dancers used gestures to mimic the lyrics. “The way you hold your knife,” they struck the arm with fearful glee; “The way you sing off key” led to one finger over the mouth – like shh. It was pleasant.
For the finale “Achoo, Adieu” set to music by Ludovico Einaudi, Figgins shared the choreographic credit with the class 2023. He began preparing in the dance studio; The dancers wore practice clothes – leotards, t-shirts, t-shirts – as they stepped up their routine. A dark color changed the place; A voice in the form of a news report announced that the mayor would close the New York City school system “to stop the spread of the coronavirus.”
Aiden Concepcion stopped dancing to play snippets of Enadi’s score live on a keyboard at the front of the stage. His mood was heightened. Finally, the mask made a brief appearance as the dancers formed a circle before separating into two lines offstage. Graduation gowns are draped over their hands when they return. They put them on and strip to the front of the stage, smiling and pushing for the finale: the class drawing. They did it!
Ballet Tech Children’s Dance
Through Sunday at the Joyce Theatre, joyce.org.