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The Inside Edge: YAS features cutting-edge choreo

First female choreographer wins Young Artists Showcase competition
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Zabato Bebe (L) performed, while Sarah Kawahara judged during the final competition of the Young Artists Showcase fifth-season show. -Drew Meekins

The fifth edition of the MK Young Artists Showcase (YAS) choreography competition finished up with a final live competition and show on Nov. 30 in Washington, D.C. For the first time, a woman won -- in fact, it was the first time a woman had even made the final. Anna Cobb was the clear winner, with Katie Stewart the runner-up. 

Competitors Mauro Bruni, Sarah Santee, Allison Kymmell, Briana Pinzon, Heidi Evers and Kate McCall -- as well as Cobb and Stewart -- had participated in weekly choreography challenges in August and September, which were posted online and awarded scores by varying panels of judges. Previous winners include Tommy Steenburg, Adam Blake, Mark Hanretty and Zabato Bebe. The winner receives a $2,500 prize and opportunities to have his/her work performed at Rockefeller Center in New York City and other locations.

Stewart competed at the U.S. championships twice as a junior lady; after taking some time away from skating she now coaches at her hometown rink in Traverse City, Michigan. She told us she started learning choreography in order to make herself a better coach and and be able to verbalize her knowledge to her skaters. As a first step, she took the American Ice Theatre Masters of Choreography class.

"That class gave me a lot of confidence to keep pursuing choreography," she said. "I decided to take a leap of faith and see what happened. I didn't have a lot of expectations going into this. I just wanted to prove to myself that I could follow through on something, push myself choreographically and be a part of a community that supports that and nurtures that."

Stewart admitted she found performing in the show nerve-wracking. 

"The last time I was in front of an audience was 2003 nationals," she said.

Cobb, 23, is also from Michigan -- Flint, in her case. She's currently a show skater, who started choreographing for herself back in her competitive days.

"I've been following YAS since the very beginning, since the first year," she said. "Every year, somebody would try to talk me into doing it. I thought it was a great idea but I never pictured myself doing it. This year, all my friends who did it in previous years really encouraged me to go for it. I never expected to be in the finals. I was just doing it to step out of the box and push myself and my choreography."

The final

Sarah Kawahara, Doug Webster, Anna Matuszewski and Doug Mattis judged the finals live. First up, Bebe performed to Macklemore's "Same Love." The program was choreographed by both Cobb and Stewart. The judges gave their comments and scores on the spot without knowing which choreographer did which piece.

In the second half, each finalist skated a piece of her own creation, which was again judged live immediately. All three judges were unanimous in their choice of Cobb as the winner, giving her piece to Duffy's "Syrup and Honey" the highest score possible. They felt that Stewart's piece to "Sea of Love" was too introspective and quiet for the event, noting that it's important to choreograph for the audience as well as the skater. 

Webster, in particular, talked about how the choreographers used edges and turns in their pieces.

"I come from the skill of figure skating," Webster said. "As much as I'm looking for a certain element of intricacy, it's based on musicality and edges and turns -- how people use the vocabulary of skating to great effect. I'm a skating traditionalist, as Dick Button might be. I think it's about really good skating quality and how to use it to the best advantage."

At its heart, though, Webster says choreography is personal.

"I think that having a strong emotional life, feeling deeply as a person, is a common factor of wanting to be a choreographer so you can share your emotions with the world," he said.

Rounding out the show were performances by former YAS competitors Kate McSwain, Izzi Gorowsky and others, as well as 2014 U.S. junior dance silver medalists Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter. 

All proceeds benefited the "Kids on Ice" program, which offers local children from the neighborhood a place to skate for free, as well as a safe haven after school. Rachael Flatt and Kiri Baga donated many pairs of their old skates to the program. Flatt inscribed each skate with something she had accomplished in it, along the lines of "First double axel" or "Won senior ladies." Selected skaters from the program participated in an improvisation number in the show, to Macklemore's "Thrift Shop."

Famous choreographers

In addition to the final show, the weekend included seminars by Kawahara and Matuszewski.

Kawahara is known for her work with Stars on Ice, Disney on Ice, the Ice Capades and other shows, as well as her choreography for Scott Hamilton and scores of other big names. She has been involved with YAS from the beginning.

"Choreography has been my career for the last 30 years, and I hold it as the passion of my life," Kawahara told us. "I'm very interested to pass on my knowledge. With all the casts I've worked with, generations of skaters have passed through my hands. It's nice to reach out to the new generation at this time, when there are less ice experiences and creative outlets for choreography."

Kawahara taught a seminar to a professional group composed mostly of aspiring choreographers and coaches. She had them do an exercise with shapes, mentioning two common mistakes made by beginning choreographers.

"One of the pitfalls of choreography in the beginning is 'kitchen soup' choreography, which means having the opportunity to choreograph something and throwing everything in because you have the opportunity," Kawahara said. "And the other is, a lot of times, when you first begin to create, you create the shape and all you see is the shape. Sometimes in the beginning, choreographers tend to be too small, too closed."

Kawahara is currently rehearsing a theater show called Broadway on Ice

"I have two companies of it going out to two different parts of the world," she said. "One of the shows is proscenium-style, and the other show is arena-style, so it will be my challenge to adapt the choreography to those different shapes. One goes to Cancun, Mexico, starring Brian Boitano and Frank d'Ambrosio. And the other is going to Oman, starring an opera singer, a broadway singer and a concert pianist."

Matuszewski is a hip-hop choreographer and dancer, known for her work with Macklemore. The morning of the day of the final, she taught a hip-hop workshop on the floor at the rink.

Matuszewski was a skater until knee surgery ended her career. 

"I had taken dance for my skating, but it wasn't a focus," she admitted. "I used to make up routines all the time. I couldn't skate after my surgery, so I ended up teaching skating. I went to a jazz class at the wrong time and ended up at a hip-hop class. I got bitten by the bug, and I just fell in love with it. I ended up starting a dance company and a dance school in Seattle, and I kept studying and got really involved with street dance."

She has been choreographing the dancers who tour with Macklemore for about five years. Her former coach, who is friends with Audrey Weisiger, recommended that she get involved with YAS, and she was excited for the opportunity.

"I don't do a lot with skating anymore, but I love skating and I would like to be connected with people who share the same vision," Matuszewski said. "The ice is very smooth and graceful and it flows from one thing to another, and dance can have different textures. It would be cool to see them merge more."

The future

We asked Weisiger, who founded YAS, about her vision for the future of the event.

"My fantasy would be to have this on television, and have five top choreographers and five talent performers: a lady, a man, a pair, a dance team and an ensemble," Weisiger said. "I love the 'secret talent' aspect, when a piece is shown and the judges don't know who choreographed it."

Weisiger admits that TV might be a long shot.

"I could see this on Ovation or Bravo," she said hopefully. "I'm not sure that it would fly on network TV unless we spritzed it up a little bit. My vision wasn't just, 'how can we make it popular?' I wanted to do something that people can learn from."

Leaving TV aside, Weisiger expects the contest to have a broader base and more entrants. She has already attracted some very big names as judges, helped by the fact that, apart from the final, the contest is online. 

"The last judging panel included Robin Cousins, Kurt Browning, Scott Brown and Sinead Kerr," she said. "Getting support from the illustrious skating community has been important. Sarah [Kawahara] has judged every year. To have those kind of people hang in there with the project is really validating to me, and shows that we're doing something important."

However, Weisiger always wants the last part of the contest to be a live show.

"The most powerful thing to me is when everyone comes together to celebrate the two finalists," she said. "I don't want to give that up."

Sarah and Drew
Follow them on Twitter @SarahandDrew