Young Dancers Take Over 92Y

| 17 Feb 2015 | 05:08

Teenage choreographers strut their stuff in weekend-long showcase

Upper East Side The 92nd Street Y has long played host to some of the most celebrated contemporary dancers, companies and choreographers, including Alvin Ailey's, Merce Cunningham's, and Robert Joffrey's companies.

Some of New York City's talented teenage choreographers can add their names to this impressive list. "Dance Up!-The Next Generation," a weekend-long concert series presented by 92Y Harkness Dance Center, features work exclusively by teenage choreographers. Now in its ninth year, the series features a diverse array of performances, from hip hop to modern dance, all created by some of the city's youngest choreographers.

"Most choreographers have a studio showing or performance at their high schools," said John-Mario Sevilla, director of 92Y Harkness Dance Center. "They don't usually get a chance to show it to the public. This is one of the few opportunities for high school choreographers to present in a stage setting for an audience in one of the more prominent spaces in the city."

92Y received 30 applications for 12 slots in the showcase, which were reviewed by a jury of five directors and teachers with 92Y's dance program, including Sevilla. When assessing the applications, the judges looked for "experimentation and invention," Sevilla said, and a distinct, authentic voice.

One of the 12 groups selected for the showcase was Shake System, a co-ed hip hop ensemble led by instructor Michelle Seabreeze, and formed out of Urban Arts Partnership, an organization that provides integrated arts education programs to under-served public school students. Choreographed by Christie Benitez, Wilkiaris Crispin and Alex Parker, their piece, "Behind the Mask," adapts traditional elements of hip hop dance, such as break-dancing and popping and locking, in order to confront gender stereotypes and bullying.

Benitez, 19, choreographed a break-dancing portion of the piece, set to M.I.A's song "Y.A.L.A," that challenges traditional perceptions of women in hip hop.

"We're usually, like, entitled to such a small role, which is usually very feminine, sexual, many things like that," Benitez said during a break in a recent Saturday morning rehearsal at the Urban Arts Partnership space on Howard Street. "I'm just trying to show that us females, we can also get into a guy role, a kind of more confident, masculine kind of role."

Benitez, who graduated from the Heritage School on the Upper East Side last year and is majoring in biology at Bronx Community College, said she's more comfortable with dance forms typically associated with male dancers.

"I dress a certain type of way," Benitez said. "I prefer male dances, like breaking more than voguing."

During rehearsal, she wore loose sweatpants, a baggy tee shirt, Nike high tops and a black beanie covering her short hair. In "Behind the Mask," she sometimes assumes a male persona while other girls with long hair and more form-fitting clothes embody female characters.

"I don't really know what people would think of me, and I kind of don't care," she said. "I'm gonna just do me, what I know, what I've learned."

Parker's portion of the choreography uses krumping as an energetic, frenzied assault on bullying, while celebrating freedom of expression and individuality.

"We all express our own selves, but as one," said Parker, 16, who's a junior at the Heritage School, where he met Benitez. "We all express ourselves, express our style, our swag."

Sevilla said Shake System's inventive use of hip hop choreography along with the socially-conscious theme of their piece impressed the judging panel.

"They're trying to use dance as a medium to say something important," Sevilla said, a characteristic, he noted, that all the selected choreographers share. "They're not just doing cool moves to music, which can be fun and entertaining, but they're going for something deeper."