Back in full swing: Two programs at Academy of Music will highlight teen performers in dance, music, poetry and more

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 05-19-2023 2:27 PM

For dancers, the pandemic proved a particularly tough time, in which an art form built on movement, collaboration and physical connection was mostly limited to Zoom sessions, with solitary dancers performing in front of video cameras in their rooms or rehearsal spaces.

But fast forward to spring 2023, and live dance performances are again in full swing. And next week at the Academy of Music in Northampton, young dancers from the area will be sharing a stage with musicians, actors, and other artists in a collaborative showcase for teen performers.

“Big Time,” on May 25, and “Exchange,” on May 26, are both presented by the School for Contemporary Dance & Thought (SCDT) in Northampton, which is home to the teen pre-professional dance company Hatchery, an ensemble for regional performers ages 13 to 18.

Whereas “Big Time” is a forum for about 20 of the older Hatchery dancers, in “Exchange” the teen ensemble will share the stage with young performers from a number of local organizations, including The Performance Project in Springfield and the Williston Northampton School Dance Company.

Jen Polins, founding director of SCDT, says Hatchery has been bringing a more multidisciplinary element to its performances over the last several years by inviting musicians, additional dancers and other artists to be part of its shows, and adding elements such as video.

Starting last fall, Polins, who previously taught at the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School (PVPA) in South Hadley, began thinking of expanding that model by staging a larger show that could highlight the work of a range of teen artists in the Valley.

“I wanted to have a place where (young artists) could perform in front of a bigger audience, and where they could meet and share their work,” she said during a recent interview.

Teen groups “tend to perform in their own spaces,” Polins added. “This is an opportunity to put them in one place where everyone can see the amazing, creative work they’re doing.”

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“Exchange” is also just the first part of a collaborative effort that Polins and leaders of other local groups plan to extend into next year, likely with another combined show but also rehearsals and meetings in which teens from different groups can meet in smaller sessions to explore more “cross pollination,” as Polins puts it.

Hopefully future group performances can take place in the Workroom Theater at 33 Hawley, at the Northampton Community Arts Trust building, once final construction work on the space is finished later this year, Polins added.

All together now

For “Big Time,” members of Hatchery have worked with a number of guest choreographers over the past several months. Among them are Chloe London, who teaches dance at Smith College, and Maya LaLiberté, a Smith alumna in dance.

Along with the dances they’ve choreographed themselves, Hatchery members will also cover work by Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane. Polins says several musicians will be part of the performance, playing in the orchestra pit.

For “Exchange,” Hatchery members will take turns sharing the stage with, along with members of The Performance Project and the Williston Dance Company, students from the MAPS project (Music and Poetry Synchronized) and PVPA’s Wofa West African Drum and Dance Company.

MAPS was started 18 years ago at PVPA, when students began meeting with students from schools in New York City that mostly serve Black and Hispanic communities. The New York students wrote poems that the PVPA students set to music, and the schools would host a yearly concert to present the material.

MAPS has since become a larger organization, now based in Northampton. Ilana Morris, the group’s program coordinator, says additional schools, including the high schools in Easthampton and Northampton, are now involved in arts exchange programs.

Students in Easthampton High School, for instance, collaborate with students from Great Path Academy, a high school on the campus of Manchester Community College, located outside Hartford, Connecticut. Morris says students at both schools have written poetry and music based on student work from the other school.

“It’s been a great two-way program,” she said. And at “Exchange,” seven students from those schools, and from Northampton High School, will perform songs based on student poetry; a student from Easthampton High School will also read an original poem.

“We’re really excited to see our students be a part of this show,” Morris added, noting that visual art by Easthampton and Great Path students will also be part of the presentation.

Meantime, seven members of The Performance Project will stage part of “Mother Tongue,” a multilingual physical theater piece created by First Generation, members of Performance Project ages 15 to 22 who are the first in their family to, for instance, grow up in the U.S., speak English, or graduate from high school.

“It’s a work of visual theater, with dance incorporated and a lot of personal and family stories,” said Julie Lichtenberg, a co-director of Performance Project. “And it explores a lot of important issues: cultural identity, hyper masculinity, revolution, racism … we don’t focus on one theme.”

Lichtenberg notes that members of Performance Project have collaborated with Hatchery and SCDT before and are looking forward to doing more of the same over the upcoming year.

And “Exchange,” she added, “should help build on that. It’s a great forum for showcasing the artistic work young people are doing in our area.”

“We think this show should have a real festive feel,” said Polins. “It’s not a recital. It’s an opportunity to see students and young people do some really different and creative work.”

Both “Big Time” and “Exchange” take place at 7:30 p.m., on May 25 and 26, respectively. Tickets are available at aomtheatre.com.

On a related note: To mark its 18th anniversary, the MAPS program is staging a separate show May 23 at PVPA from 1:15 to 2:30 p.m. In this performance, PVPA students have composed music to poems written by students from Urban Assembly for Green Careers & Innovations Diploma Plus (UAGC/IDP), a school in New York City.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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