U.Dance 2012

Groups from across the UK converge on London for a highlight of the Cultural Olympiad

There is no greater reward for people in the creative industries than to have their work shown and applauded outside of their own immediate environment. When those concerned are young, inexperienced but fuelled by raw talent and ambition, it is unimaginably exciting to have that work showcased at the biggest arts event of 2012.

Some 29 young dancers from Northern Ireland have just experienced the ultimate buzz, performing to packed houses during U. Dance 2012, the high-profile youth dance festival held in London as part of the Cultural Olympiad, which ran from July 13 - 15.

The three-day event was managed and staged by Youth Dance England, with Belfast’s DU Dance partnering with YDance (Scottish Youth Dance), National Youth Dance Wales and Southbank Centre as the organising steering group.

London is a thrilling place to be at present. For all the negative publicity surrounding transport congestion, ticket sales and security concerns, it takes the breath away to walk along the great crescent of Regent Street, hung from one end to the other with the flags of all the participating Olympic countries.

The south bank of the Thames, home to the city’s cultural hub – the National Theatre, the Festival Hall, the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Hayward Gallery – is awash with colour and activity, in celebration of the Festival of the World at the Southbank Centre, which is staging a huge number of international arts events, including the U. Dance Festival, over the summer months.

'Dance has the power to unlock potential and change young people’s lives,' said its artistic director, Jude Kelly, a sentiment shared by Youth Dance England’s patron Arlene Phillips OBE, who spoke movingly at a reception held on the festival’s opening night.

'I come from a poverty-stricken background, but I always desperately wanted to dance,' said Phillips. 'People made sacrifices so that I could do so. When I see how dance can transform lives, it makes me very proud.'

Two Northern Ireland companies, The Dance Society and Academy Dance, took to the big stage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall on successive evenings.

In the company of 30 groups from right across the UK, the young participants painted a vivid real-life portrait of contemporary youth culture, with dancers from Indian and Brazilian communities in London and the north-west of England joining hip-hop street dancers from Cardiff and dancers with learning disabilities from Oxfordshire.

Kobika Youth Dance Company from the south-east of England performed a mischievously witty piece, pointing up those excruciating moments that bedevil all our lives. Impington Performance School from the east of England presented an ambitious mixed-media piece drawn from the dancers’ own experiences of domestic trauma and mental illness.

Fusion from Scotland scored high in the fashion stakes with their tattered designer-tartan costumes, while Shift, the resident senior youth dance company at London’s The Place, set the bar high with their brilliantly inventive take on social networking and electronic communication.

Interestingly, both local groups independently chose Titanic as the central theme of their performances, an indication that amongst Northern Ireland’s younger generation there is a strong sense of history and respect for the past.

St Louise’s College in Belfast’s Falls Road is the home of The Dance Society, which was established there in 1994. To a soundscape inspired by the score of James Cameron’s blockbuster movie, a group of girls of varying natural ability invoked the spirits and shades of those lost in the north Atlantic on that fateful night.

They lifted and supported each other in well choreographed segments, which combined soft and gentle movements with hard-shoe Riverdance-influenced rhythms.

Academy Dance from Banbridge Academy presented Waves of the Atlantic, which enabled them to share the experiences of shipyard workers and their families with an audience far less familiar with the Titanic story. This group was formed a mere four years ago and, together with their Belfast companions, they took tremendous satisfaction at their involvement in this prestigious international event.

The culmination of the evening was an absolutely stunning piece of abstract dance, choreographed by one of the world’s edgiest and most talked about choreographers, the Israeli artist Hofesh Schechter.

From a gruelling series of auditions around the country, he chose Jemima Brown from east Belfast and Brona Jackson from Derry~Londonderry to become members of U.Dance Ensemble, the first UK-wide youth dance company. And what an unforgettable experience it has been for them.

Since January, they have been travelling to London for rehearsals. The endgame is the keenly anticipated world premiere of Tank, a piece which is at once collaborative and confrontational, aggressive and close-knit.

A non-stop, high energy series of sequences one minute invoke the sweat and frenzy of a nightclub, the next the chaos and drama of a battlefield. The mysterious, rust-coloured light design transforms the space into a smoky twilight zone, where, using an intriguing blend of powerful and delicate movements, these talented young dancers form a seething mass of humanity.

The whole spectacle is set to a pounding, hypnotic score by the prodigiously talented Shechter, who is due to return to Northern Ireland in the near future to begin work on a piece on Derry’s walls for UK City of Culture 2013.

With Northern Ireland’s sportsmen and women receiving the lion’s share of public and media attention for their part in the London Olympics, it’s a tremendous honour for Northern Irish artists to share the global platform in this momentous year.

Shirley McCay, Head of Economic Initiatives at Belfast City Council, travelled over specially for the occasion and was bursting with pride at the contribution made to the festival by these young dancers.

'It’s amazing to see so many young people from Northern Ireland appearing at this huge event, alongside their counterparts from across the UK,' she said. 'It can be difficult to get people from all sides to mingle back home, but on a world stage like this, the barriers and boundaries disappear. I feel very proud of them all.

Jane Coyle is Chair of DU Dance.