By JAMES LYONS, Gazette Contributing Writer
(Published in print: Thursday, February 6, 2014)
Dancers in the Catalyst Dance Company say they eagerly accept the opportunity to create choreography and to improvise onstage — challenging tasks for any dancers — but these performers haven’t yet graduated from high school. They are students at Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter School in South Hadley, a public school that promotes training and study in the arts.
The fruits of the dancers’ labor will be on view Feb. 7 and 8 when Catalyst presents “Estimate the Impact,” a dance concert at the Academy of Music in Northampton. The show marks the 16th anniversary of Catalyst and will feature 14 dances, including ensemble pieces, solos, duets and trios, choreographed by students, teachers and guest artists. Music for the concert includes classical, hip-hop, jazz and electronic.
“There’s something for everyone. It covers a lot of styles,”said Jennifer Polins, a professional dancer and choreographer and the director of Catalyst for the past five years. “Every piece is unique. There’s a lot of world premieres.”
Performing diverse movement styles serves a dual purpose, Polins says: It makes for an entertaining event, and it also broadens the training and performing opportunities for the Catalyst students, many of whom are interested in pursuing careers in the art after graduation.
“It’s always important to be exposed to a variety of things,” Polins said. “When they work with someone physically, they start to understand the world of the choreographer.”
Paul Matteson, a member of the dance faculties at Mount Holyoke and Amherst colleges, choreographed for the group, as did PVPA teacher James Marrow, a contemporary dance and hip-hop choreographer. Summation Dance Company, a New York City-based modern dance company, also set a piece on 17 dancers, adapting an existing work that was originally choreographed for six.
“They were so impressed by the level of attention and technique that the kids have,” Polins said.
Polins says she never hesitates to bring in guest choreographers to work with the group: “They are the most technically gifted students I’ve had the opportunity to work with so far,” she said. “Every professional dancer and choreographer that comes to the school is blown away by the level of the kids.”
Follow your imagination
The dance program at PVPA and Catalyst offers students from western Massachusetts middle and high schools and dance studios the chance to expand their knowledge and skill as dancers, as well as to improvise and choreograph. Teaching students how to create new work is a primary aim of the program, Polins says.
“Being able to do your own work is an opportunity a lot of people outside of Catalyst in dance don’t have,” said Nate Odell, 18, a PVPA senior from Belchertown. Odell, who has danced since he was 3 years old, joined Catalyst this year after transferring from West Springfield last year to PVPA. While admission to PVPA is by lottery, students are chosen for Catalyst by audition. This year there are 18 company dancers.
Polins teaches the students the principles of choreography in the classroom, prompting them with specific ideas to get them started.
“I give them the smallest idea and make space for them to start exploring,” Polins said. “We’re developing skills to follow our imagination.”
For Odell, inspiration comes, most often, from music: “I start by improvising to music. … I find movement that feels good with the music and start putting it together like a puzzle.” Odell choreographed an ensemble piece for the concert and also co-choreographed a duet with fellow Catalyst dancer and PVPA senior Maijalisa Miltz, 18, that the two will perform at the concert. Odell says he’s looking forward to also performing a “structured improvisational” piece in the concert: “We set places on the stage and specific times in which we do specific things but the actual movements we are doing are all off the top of the head.”
Odell exemplifies the type of students who are attracted by Catalyst’s mission to train dancers who are looking for a concentrated focus on their art. After graduation, many will continue their training in college and/or pursue professional careers. Past members have danced in the Broadway show “Cats,” and have performed with companies including Lucinda Childs, Ballet Austin, David Newman, The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, The Bill Renee Harris Pure Movement, and Disney Tours. Catalyst dancers have received scholarships to college dance programs, including The Juilliard School in New York City; Ohio State University in Columbus Ohio; Goucher College in Baltimore; and Purchase College in Purchase, N.Y.
Catalyst places an emphasis on the independence of its students as they are training, says Polins, who calls upon her expertise in Broadway-style dance, ballet, contemporary and alternative styles to prepare Catalyst students for the professional world of dance. Polins is also the co-artistic director of the Wire Monkey Dance, a professional company based in Holyoke that has toured nationally and internationally.
Belonging to Catalyst, she says, offers the students information about what will be expected of them if they choose to pursue a career in dance.
“I’m guiding them to be self-generative,” she said. “Catalyst is training kids to understand all the work necessary to create a dance concert. They’re understanding how to become artists.”