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Teaching body language to the next generation

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Dance is never an easy sell, but Montreal choreographer Hélène Blackburn, artistic director of Cas Public, has a particularly difficult challenge. Her Diary/Journal intime, which opened yesterday, has been programmed as part of both the Milk International Children's Festival and the Harbourfront Moves dance series. This dual focus means the piece must appeal to both the notoriously difficult 12-to-17 youth market as well as fans of adult contemporary dance.

Diary/Journal intime is the third in a series of the Youth Commission for Dance, a joint initiative of Ottawa's National Arts Centre and the Canada Council. As Blackburn points out, teenagers have a preconceived negative opinion of contemporary dance. "They have issues with their own bodies, which is a huge barrier," she says. "They also have difficulty with dance as an abstraction. We have to show them that contemporary dance can be cool."

When Cathy Levy became the NAC's dance producer in 2000, one of her top priorities was the development of youth programming. "Dance has always lagged behind music and theatre when it comes to the youth market," she says. "Our challenge is to capture that age group before they totally turn away from the art form." Audience development concerns were also a factor in the Canada Council's contribution of $50,000 to the $100,000 Youth Commission budget.

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The Youth Commission choreographers have obviously chosen material relevant to teenagers. Matjash Mrozewski's Break Open Play (2003) had fun portraying the creative process as an art class gone wild. The Holy Body Tattoo's monumental (2004), choreographed by Noam Gagnon and Dana Gingras, dealt with urban downtown culture and collective anxiety. Blackburn's Diary/Journal intime, which premiered in Ottawa in February, is based on the theme of love and passion.

Blackburn is a 46-year-old mother of a 15-year-old daughter who was the inspiration for Diary/Journal intime. "Camille is like me when I was her age," says Blackburn, "intense and terrible -- only I was worse."

Blackburn's seven dancers explore the roller-coaster experience of first love through text and highly physical movement. There is also a film of 15 different teen couples kissing, which is shown over scene changes.

The choreographer is known for always pushing buttons. Blackburn already has two other successful youth pieces under her belt that have their own challenges for young audiences. If you go down to the woods today/Nous n'irons plus au bois tackles the subject of childhood fears, while Blue Beard/Barbe Bleue deals with sex and violence, albeit with humour.

Diary/Journal intime has already caused controversy with an Ottawa Catholic school as being too sexually explicit. Levy praises the work as sexual, sensual, poignant and daring.

Heterosexual dance couples and their shifting partners are not Blackburn's only focus. She includes a male duet, a trio of two women and one man, and a girl faking an orgasm that is so clearly pretend that the audience convulses in laughter. "They know a lot more about sex than we did," she says.

The choreographer also throws a curve into the film component by including one very old couple kissing which generates loud choruses of "Yuk!" While the homosexual duet is greeted with shocked silence, the fickle male in the ménage à trois gets called very nasty names by the very vocal audience. A duet that showcases a couple engaging in continuous kissing elicits both groans and nervous titters.

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Blackburn studied ballet before earning her masters degree in contemporary dance. She uses her ballet background as a recognizable point of reference for young audiences in Diary/Journal intime. A live pianist plays classical music, and some of the dancers wear specially designed point shoes that have little heels that allow them to walk normally.

Diary/Journal intime is full of surprises, including 1,000 candles on the set. "My daughter is a multitasker like all teenagers," explains Blackburn. "She can listen to music, talk on the phone and do her nails at the same time. I've used that approach to the piece by having short sections that show many points of view at the same time."

Both the NAC and the Canada Council deem the Youth Commission a success and have extended it for a fourth year with Montreal choreographer Martin Bélanger.

The obvious question is: How does one monitor the success of the initiative?

The NAC set up a focus group of six Ottawa teenagers, age 13 to 18, who get a high-school credit for their participation and are ambassadors for dance. The students attend all the NAC dance performances and write reports about what they see. "They have taught us a great deal" says Levy, "and we've gained a real insight into that age group."

Levy discovered that students want a way in, and when they have been well prepared for a dance piece, the gap between an obscure art form and the youth audience can be bridged. Bilingual study guides are part of the project and are readily available on the NAC website.

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Another success marker is the increase in Ottawa area attendance -- in other words, the buzz that the Youth Commission is generating. Mrozewski's two school matinees attracted 657, Holy Body Tattoo's had an attendance of 958, while Cas Public's audience was 1,122. "The schools are clearly becoming more engaged," Levy says.

According to dance officer Mark Shaub, the Canada Council regards dance for youth as a strategic priority and keeps its own score card. Educational outreach is one indicator, and requests for master classes, workshops, lecture/demos and dance talks are on the rise. The Q&As, which follow each performance, are also a gauge of audience involvement.

Says Shaub: "We are interested in creating quality work that brings young people not only to see dance, but pieces that makes them think about dance and discuss it. This is how you create the next-generation dance audience."

Blackburn's piece clearly struck a chord. She reports that after the Ottawa performances, her dancers were inundated with autograph seekers. "In fact," she says, "many kids came back to see the show on their own and brought their friends."

During the Milk Festival's School Week (May 21 to 28), Cas Public's Diary/Journal intime runs today and tomorrow, 10 a.m. The evening performances are tonight to Saturday, 8 p.m. Harbourfront Centre Theatre (416-973-4000).

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