This rehearsal studio may be abuzz with activity, but it is far from chaotic. To my left, a young man is finding out how to make a backwards roll more fluid. In front, three dancers are marking a phrase, while behind me assorted people are watching, conversing and taking notes. On the far side, the largest group, clustering around some outsize metal frames, are overseen by a man in a cap whose chair, I decide, looks like it should have “director” written across it.
The man is Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and the dancers – more than 30 of them, aged 16 to 19 – come from all sorts of backgrounds from all over England. This is no ordinary half-term holiday for any of them, but then this is no ordinary company. The National Youth Dance Company was founded in 2012 to nurture young dance talent, each year drawing in 30 new members through open auditions and inviting a different guest director to create an evening of work.
Those are very particular circumstances. How did Cherkaoui decide to approach them? “One thing you notice straight away,” he says, “is that it’s a really big group, bigger than any contemporary company I have worked with. So I wanted to find material that would be really strong with lots of dancers.” He looked into his own repertory for suitable material and four pieces came to mind: Babel (2010, created with Damien Jalet), TeZukA (2011), Puz/zle (2012) and Loin (2005). “There were some sections from them that I just wondered how they would look with more dancers,” he says. “And I actually made Loin for the Ballet of Geneva, for about 21 dancers, and I thought it would be good to revisit this material.”
The selection was about more than logistics though: it was about how to engage the dancers. “I was looking for material that would connect with who these people are,” he explains. “For example, there are parts of Babel which are all about staking territory, demanding a space for yourself, and I thought: as a young dancer, you kind of have to do that already. Common to all the pieces is an idea of contact or connection. They look at different ways of being connected: is there a line between us, are we on the same side, are we stuck with each other? Young people are really exploring those kinds of boundaries with others.”
So although he is interested in nurturing and developing the dancers’ talent, Cherkaoui is not interested in displaying it as such. “NYDC is not So You Think You Can Dance!” he laughs. And then gets serious. “Of course, there is that aspect of showing off in dance, but it’s really a way of saying something deeper, about connection. See me. Recognise me. Accept me. Remember me. I think young dancers are discovering these things for themselves – maybe unconsciously, but I am really happy to be part of it.”
How, I ask, does he find dealing with not just such a large but such a mixed bunch, both in terms of dance training and personal background? “I like that they have to co-exist,” he replies. “My own company, Eastman, is a little like that, so in a way it’s familiar to me. I like diversity. I know some people think it is dangerous in dance, that what we need integrity and coherence. And I think: no, no! The older I get, the more convinced I am that what dance needs is diversity, different points of view. So that our creations are as informed as we can make them. That can only come from people approaching things in different ways.”
The title of his NYDC piece, Frame[d], presumably refers to the metal structures that form its set, originally created by artist Antony Gormley for Babel. “Yes, that’s where the title came from,” Cherkaoui says – but typically, he thinks of it in less literal terms. “The idea of frames brought up new ideas as well. For example, being blamed for something you didn’t do. You get that very often as a young person: what did I do to deserve this? How can I be truthful in a world that seems to be lying? There’s also the idea that in our lives we create frames for others to express themselves. So with these metal structures, the dancers have to understand that they are forming frames for others to enter. The focus might not be on them, but if they didn’t create the frame no one would notice the person inside.”
There is also, of course, a practical framework for getting the piece done. Cherkaoui is not with the company all the time, and he couldn’t in any case deal with all of the dancers all the time. So he has enlisted three helpers who have worked with him before: Navala Chaudhari, Leif Firnhaber and Elias Lazaridis. They divide up the work between them, taking responsibility for different groups and different sections of choreography, videoing rehearsals for follow-up conversations and conference calls after studio time. All of them are impressed with the dancers. “They are so receptive and learn so fast,” she says, “much more than my generation 10 years ago. And I love the way that they haven’t been framed by one particular dance training or way of looking and performing.”
“And because of that,” continues Firnhaber, “they just go for it and make it happen, even though we demand a lot from them – as much as we would from any professional. That’s beautiful to see. And I can tell you something else: in an ordinary school lesson, it can be hard to get students this age to concentrate for even a single lesson. Here, they focus for 8 to 9 hours, and carry on afterwards.”
I certainly notice that focus in rehearsal: when dancers are not practising with one of the directors they are often to be found taking notes or learning from each other. I manage to meet four of them briefly during their lunchbreak, and ask how they find working in such a geographically and stylistically disparate company. “It’s always inspiring when you see someone working in a different way,” says Al’manni Ali. “It gives you a wider outlook. It makes you a better dancer.”
“I thought it would be hard,” says Louisa Sutherland, “but actually when you all want the same goal, you all just work together.”
“That’s one of the beauties of NYDC,” agrees Tom Hodgkins. “We work incredibly hard over a short period, and we become like one.”
“The directors seem to see what each of us is good at,” says Harry Galloway. “At the same time we feel like: this is us, together.”
Before I’ve had much chance to delve further, they are called – and go eagerly – back to rehearsal. And I think: this work is about framing on another level too. NYDC is itself a way of creating different frames – technical, creative, performative, social and professional – in which these young dancers can both be themselves and begin to discover who they might become.