Education & Family

The National Youth Dance Company, seeking future talent

Image caption "They are just as strong, sometimes stronger than professional dancers," Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, guest artistic director, National Youth Dance Company

The National Youth Dance Company hunts out talented teenagers from all over England. Their latest performance will premiere at Sadler's Wells on Friday. Judith Burns went to one of their rehearsals.

"This is the centre point. We have worked on this. Remember this. Don't dance off the stage. You are all intelligent beings," shouts rehearsal director Niku Chaudhari.

The largest rehearsal studio at Sadler's Wells theatre in north London is roughly the size of a tennis court.

Days before they premiere on the Sadler's Wells stage, the dancers fill the space, moving together in what Niku says should be "an organised mess".

There's encouragement as well as criticism: "It looks cool, it really does," she tells them.

No pink tights

Louis, from Mitcham in south-west London, taught himself to dance, aged 12, copying styles from friends and YouTube.

Wide dance
Image caption "You need to be near the person closest to you, in a very organised mess," Niku Chaudhari, rehearsal director, National Youth Dance Company

At 14, he joined a local urban dance group where, he says, "I got taught routines by my cousin."

Now aged 18 and in his third year with the company, he has performed six times at Sadler's Wells, directed by a series of world-renowned choreographers.

"Many professional dancers never get this chance. I will keep this with me for my whole life," he says.

The movements are complex, the piece is an hour long, the dancers are young - aged 15 to 19, and there are 38 of them.

It's hard to remember where the middle of the stage is meant to be - and easy to dance too near the edge.

There are no pink tights, no leotards and no hairpins.

The dancers wear leggings, tracksuits, vests, some have knee supports and sweat bands.

More than half of them are boys.

Dancers rest
Image caption Tracksuits, knee supports - no pink tights, no buns

Louis says he had little formal training before he started with the company. He and a group of other boys were encouraged to audition by a teacher at his college where they were studying BTECs.

"It has really opened my eyes to the choices. It's not just about urban dance."

'Exchanging skills'

But despite the enthusiasm and the estimated £77bn value of the sector to the national economy there are fears that arts and culture are being squeezed out of schools, with cultural experiences and opportunities closed off, particularly to young people from poorer backgrounds.

"Not enough is being done to stimulate or realise the creative potential of individuals," said a major report from Warwick university, earlier this year.

This is an issue the company has been acutely aware of from day one, says its director Jane Hackett.

"The talent is out there. We just need to be able to find it."

Dancers on back
Image caption "Technique keeps you safe and fit but being able to express different styles is a breathtaking experience," Lucia, 17, National Youth Dance Company

From next month, she will begin touring the country, running workshops in the search for next year's intake of dancers.

"I always struggle with the audition process," says Jane.

"So we try to make it a really fantastic experience."

The company, funded by Arts Council England, is now in its third year and alongside dancers who have been learning ballet and tap since they were tiny, it has been really successful at attracting those with no formal training.

"We have people whose only training was in a peer-led street dance group, people who have taught themselves to dance in their bathroom.

"The aim is to make the company supportive of each other and respectful of each other's skills," says Jane.

"You actually exchange movements, some really cool stuff," says Conor, 19, from Newcastle.

This is his first year with the company. Next year he has a place to train professionally at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance.

Dance heap
Image caption "We have people in the company... who have taught themselves to dance in their bathroom from YouTube," Jane Hackett, director NYDC

Lucia, 17, from east London, is an experienced youth ballet performer, and does contemporary dance three times a week on a government funded advanced training scheme for young dancers who are still at school.

She is doing AS-levels in geography, history, maths and English and is torn between pursuing a career in dance and going to university.

"Despite my very straightforward training, I have my own personal way of dancing which is not so technical.

"Technique keeps you safe and fit but being able to express different styles is a breathtaking experience."

Niku sits on the floor at the edge, facing into the room so that she can observe the whole space. With her is Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, an international star of contemporary dance choreography, and this year's guest artistic director for the company.

He takes time to tone down the scope of one dancer's movement: "It's great what you are doing but it's too big, too much.

"Try to do only the thing you need to do for your trio."

Frame[d]

He has adapted elements of three pieces, originally made for his own Eastman company, to suit the teenage cast.

The final few rehearsals are the time to hone the piece, make sure it works as a whole and in detail and plan the move on to the Sadler's Wells main stage.

The work is called Frame[d].

The dancers will perform on a set made of huge frames. The [d] in the title is a graphic expression of the idea of framing, says Sidi Larbi.

Dancers in the frame set Image copyright Gigi Giannella Sadlers Wells
Image caption The dancers will perform in a set of giant frames

"Young people are framed by us all the time.

"There is a lot of responsibility dumped on them. I felt the same in my day. We all have to save the world."

Taking advantage of the large number of dancers in the company, the focus is on the way individuals interact within a group.

"It starts with a total act of assimilation, like fish that follow the rest of the shoal.

"Then they separate and say: 'I am different from you.' They do it in unison.

"Human beings have a need for connection and a need for separation."

'Different backgrounds'

He says he works with the young dancers the same way he would with professionals.

Dancers and rehearsal directors
Image caption 'It looks cool, it really does,' Niku, rehearsal director, National Youth Dance Company

"They are powerful contemporary dancers. All come from different backgrounds with their own set of rules which they contribute into the work I am making with them.

"They are transforming the work and they don't even do it consciously."

His ideas provided the framework for the piece, he says, "but inside the framework there is a lot of liberty and room for improvisation".

He describes it as a "natural collaboration".

"I can't always tell where I stop and they begin."

After the premiere National Youth Dance Company will tour England with Frame[d] in June and July. Experience workshops for next year's intake of dancers take place during the last week of May in Swindon, Plymouth, Birmingham, Manchester, Ipswich, Derby, Eastleigh, Newcastle, Hull, Brighton, Leeds, Liverpool and London.

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