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How Hofesh Shechter is filling the gap in dance apprenticeships

members of Shechter Junior in rehearsals Photo Chien-Ming Chang Members of Shechter Junior in rehearsals Photo: Chien-Ming Chang

There is all this talent,” says choreographer Hofesh Shechter, “and what are we doing with it?”.

Well, in Shechter’s case, more than most. In response to “a gap” in opportunities for young dancers, his company has just launched Shechter Junior, a new apprentice company of eight young dancers, who will train, work and perform both independently and alongside the main Hofesh Shechter Company.

The eight dancers were selected from more than 1,000 who auditioned. They hail from the UK, Norway, Israel, Denmark, France and Germany. For Shechter, this new company is a long-held ambition: “I started thinking about this seriously when I was holding auditions for our apprentice scheme [every year the company takes two paid apprentices].

“As the years passed, I found more and more people were making it to the last phase of the auditions. In each of the last three years, I’ve felt a huge heartbreak at seeing 12 or 13 young people audition, and feeling like I could take all of them.

“This is how I started dancing: in the junior company of Batsheva in Israel, and that was my way in. I was completely unprepared to be a professional dancer, and I think if I hadn’t gone through the junior company I wouldn’t ever have been prepared.”

4 other youth dance schemesHe adds: “My feeling is that there is a gap around how students experience professional work. They come to professional companies without any kind of professional experience, so they are a little bit stuck. They don’t know how to transition. We could probably use way more opportunities for young dancers in the UK. Currently there are very little. Companies like Edge and Verve [at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance] are great, but it’s really not enough.”

Producer Helen Shute tells me that Shechter found her after last year’s auditions and said: “Next year I’m taking eight – you’re going to have to figure it out.” True to his word, Shechter Junior was born.

“It’s not an entirely separate company,” explains Shute. “They’ll do some projects alongside the main company, and having more dancers allows us to do projects on a bigger scale than we would normally be able to do.

“Right now, we’ve got these eight young dancers who are absolutely over the moon to be with us, and that gives us an amazing boost, too. You can get really bogged down in the misery of funding and reviews and travel issues and accommodation problems, so it’s wonderful to have this injection of people who come in and are just so happy to be there. There’s this wonderful extra bit of energy coming into the company.”

Shechter confirms that this is a win-win situation: “Of course, we’re looking at young dancers and thinking about the future of the company as well. How we get dancers trained in my style, ready to be in the company, gets harder as we’re touring around.”

For the members of Shechter Junior, this must be a dream come true. To finish training and go straight into full-time employment in any area of the arts is rare; to do so in an internationally acclaimed company is almost unheard of. I went into rehearsals last month, and the energy in the room was palpable, as was the concentration.

“It’s quite overwhelming,” says Anna Stamp Moller, one of the eight young dancers. “I did the audition three months ago, and suddenly we’re here. There’s so much information for you to relate to your body. We’ve been here a week, but it feels like a month.”

As the first group to take part in this new programme, do they feel pressure? “Not… yet,” says Kenny Wing Tao Ho, very slowly, and they all laugh. Moller puts it nicely: “I need to show them that they were right to choose me, that I will work my ass off to get this right, and I will get there. It’s not pressure – that’s a negative word – it’s motivation.”

Winifred Burnet-Smith, who is teaching the young dancers alongside Chien Ming Chang, and who is also part of the main company, says: “It’s not pressure, it’s responsibility. I feel a responsibility to Hofesh and to the dancers to pass on as much information as possible, and to let it translate to the body. We have to use the right language for each person – it’s such a personal thing, learning a new piece. We need the time to find the right language.”

members of Shechter Junior in rehearsals  Photo Chien-Ming Chang
Members of Shechter Junior. Photo: Chien-Ming Chang

All of the dancers have been doing bits of freelance work before auditioning for Shechter Junior, and all comment on what a luxury working as part of a company is for their personal and professional development. “I’ve been freelancing,” says Wing Tao Ho, “but this is such a good opportunity to work consistently every day and to really dig my teeth into something.”

Moller agrees: “I graduated in October and did some freelancing, and this is kind of secure, so you can grab on to everything – you can make mistakes and have time to develop and get right again. That’s very precious. It’s so nice to be in such a diverse group, but with the same goal. The focus of the energy is very enriching. All the people are brilliant in their own ways, so you can grab on to how they present and how they move.”

Shute also comments on the difficulties of freelancing in dance. “[Graduate dancers] go into this stop-start project work, which means they’re not taking classes regularly, they’re not gaining strength or skills,” she says. “What we find is that we’re seeing dancers we think are exciting auditioning for the main company before they’re ready. And when we see them again in two or three years, they’re less ready, because they’ve also had to work in a bar or had four months with no work, not getting a regular class. Dance is something you have to keep in your body all day, every day.”

Shechter Junior will make its world debut in Paris next month, with a performance of Degeneration at Theatre des Abbesses (May 4-20), marking the start of a European tour. During their eight-month apprenticeship, the dancers will also work with Shechter on the creation of a new piece, and perform alongside the full company in a special event, Hofesh Shechter and Friends at Home, Manchester’s new arts centre.

“It’s important that this is what we say it is: an apprentice programme,” says Shute. “We’re not looking to get professional dancers on a lower wage. It’s designed to fill what we see as a gap: really talented graduates coming out of conservatoires in the UK and beyond, and not being able to find that first job.”

As for Shechter, he is enthused and excited about working with all these new dancers: “It’s a crazy opportunity – an opportunity of a lifetime,” he says. “These are dancers just out of school. They’re going to perform in Paris, tour around Europe, perform with the company – it’s going to be quite a ride.”

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