NI Dancers to Perform at Cultural Olympiad

Jemima Brown and Brona Jackson make Hofesh Shechter's U.Dance troupe 

It’s a wet, windy Sunday in November, and a group of 13 young dancers from Northern Ireland are nervously awaiting the arrival of Hofesh Shechter at the Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast.

Shechter is no ordinary choreographer, and this will be no ordinary audition. ‘Angry’, ‘whip-smart’ and ‘darkly handsome’ are just some of the epithets used to label the young Israeli. He has cut a swathe through the contemporary dance scene since his arrival in the UK a decade ago, startling and delighting critics with the boldness and visceral energy of his staged pieces.

‘He has a track record of doing incredible work,' explains Mags Byrne, artistic director of Du Dance Northern Ireland (formerly Dance United NI). Du Dance has joined forces with leading companies in England, Scotland and Wales to form the U.Dance Ensemble, the first youth dance collective to recruit its members from all parts of the United Kingdom.

Shechter is the choreographer heading the inaugural U.Dance project, but despite Du Dance’s involvement there is no automatic guarantee of Northern Irish representation in the new company. If the dancers Shechter sees in Belfast aren’t good enough, they won’t be on the flight for final auditions in London, no matter where they come from.

‘There was no tokenism,’ confirms Byrne, looking back to those initial rehearsals, ‘no free passage. Hofesh was very, very clear he was not taking anybody that he didn’t feel was able to do the work.’ In the event, says Byrne, Shechter was ‘very impressed’ by the dancers who auditioned for him at the Crescent, identifying a number whom he felt had 'huge potential'.

Six of these were invited to attend a final audition at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, where the 40 participants were whittled down to 20 for the definitive U.Dance company. This elite group ('the best young dancers in the country,' as Byrne puts it) will rehearse and perform a piece developed in collaboration with Shechter in July, as part of the Cultural Olympiad offering for the London 2012 Olympics.

U.Dance auditions

Two Northern Irish dancers were among those fortunate enough to make the final 20: Jemima Brown from Sydenham in east Belfast, and Brona Jackson from Derry-Londonderry.

For Brown, a final year pupil at Hunterhouse College in Belfast, the U.Dance project occurs at a particularly hectic period. She is completing A levels in performing arts, music and physical education, continuing dance lessons and pondering the career options available when her schooldays finish in the summer.

A crowded schedule is, however, nothing new to Brown. At 18, she's already a veteran of numerous theatrical productions, most recently appearing in Music Theatre 4 Youth's Belfast Festival staging of Bernstein's West Side Story. She has been dancing almost as long as she can remember.

'When I was four I began ballet with a teacher called Jackie Philpott in Belfast,' she explains. 'And I did Irish dancing as well. Then I began with Susan McMillan, and with her I've done my ballet grades. I'm doing my grade eight this year.'

Her involvement at McMaster Stage School in Bangor has given Brown extensive experience of alternative dance styles such as hip-hop, jazz and tap. However, she is adamant that a training in classical ballet is crucial to all aspiring dancers, whatever area they eventually choose to specialise in.

'I think ballet is the basis for all dance styles,' she says. 'You'll never be any good unless you have that training. It improves things like posture, your balance, your co-ordination. And you need all those for other things.'

Brown is, understandably, hugely excited about working with a choreographer currently rated as one of the most gifted and exciting in the business. 'I'd heard about Hofesh Shechter before and seen a lot of his pieces on YouTube. His choreography is absolutely inspirational, really different, but really challenging as well. I think it's really special.'

That’s a verdict which Brown’s fellow U.Dance participant Brona Jackson would undoubtedly agree with. She’s been a ‘huge fan’ of Shechter’s work since viewing the opening sequence he devised for series two of Channel 4’s Skins three years ago.

‘Industrial, modern, honest, accessible, fast paced and energetic,’ is how Jackson describes Shechter’s choreography. Though the final U.Dance audition in London was ‘amazing, but very intense', Jackson relished the adrenaline rush of performing in such an iconic location.

‘I never wanted to leave the Royal Opera House,’ she recalls. ‘Such a privilege to get anywhere near those studios. I just couldn't stop thinking, "Oh my god, the Royal Ballet rehearse here!". Mind-blowing! Definitely one for the grand-kids…’

Jackson is, intriguingly, from a dance background very different to that of Brown. ‘I didn't take a ballet class until I was nearly 21,’ she comments. ‘My background is in freestyle disco dancing and musical theatre with Dymensions Dance Club from Creggan, Derry.

‘I competed throughout Ireland until I was 17, when I decided to focus on my studies. I returned to dance a few years later when I accidently wandered into the Crescent Arts Centre on a lovely Sunday at Botanic Gardens, and was instantly addicted again. I had never meant to give up dance, but I got distracted by the "safe" academic route.’

24 year-old Jackson is currently in the final year of a dance degree at the University of Ulster Magee campus, a course she describes as ‘one of the finest available in the UK'. She is, however, acutely aware of how difficult it will be to develop professionally as a dancer without leaving her home territory.

‘There’s not a lot of performance opportunities in Northern Ireland, which definitely has a long way to go to catch up with England's infrastructure,’ Jackson comments, citing the scarcity of funding for dance, the lack of youth training in schools, and the small number of professional companies. ‘But the standard of dancing, creating and production here is just as good.’

And what kind of piece will Shechter be devising for his U.Dance Ensemble to appear in come show-time this summer? Nobody, not even Shechter himself, is sure at present: much depends on what emerges during the three intensive periods of rehearsal preceding the actual performances.

Mags Byrne has, however, some intriguing guidelines to offer regarding the Shechter style of choreography, and what U.Dance's London audiences are likely to witness. ‘He’s got a very particular style of movement,' she comments. 'He doesn’t work necessarily with beautiful, free-flowing lines. But he works with energy, and boy is it going to be exciting.’

And Byrne has no doubts whatsoever about the quality of the two young Northern Irish artists who will be taking part in U.Dance’s July performances. ‘These young dancers have had incredible teachers,’ she comments. ‘That’s why they can sit comfortably in this grouping of the best young dancers in the UK in their age range. Hofesh has taken two dancers from Northern Ireland because they deserve it.’