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YAS opens doors for aspiring choreographers

Weisiger compares program to Project Runway on ice

Choreographer Kate McSwain with performer Eliot Halverson, who won U.S. championships at three different levels during his competitive days.
Choreographer Kate McSwain with performer Eliot Halverson, who won U.S. championships at three different levels during his competitive days. (Lynn Rutherford)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(04/02/2013) - Audrey Weisiger has a shorthand way to describe her brainchild, Young Artists Showcase (YAS).

"Think Project Runway, on ice," she said. "On Runway, they'll ask contestants to make an outfit out of banana leaves. That's what we do -- devise a series of choreographic challenges, sometimes using props.

"The goal is to develop the choreographers' craft, so that when a show director says, 'I want a group number with chairs, and I want it by Thursday,' these kids can deliver."

On Project Runway, the payoff for winning designers is showing their collections at New York Fashion Week. Some all-star "YAS'ers" had their big moment last week, when Ice Theatre of New York's 2013 City Skate Concert Series showed works from eight young choreographers, ranging in age from 9 to 30.

A midday crowd gathered around the Rink at Rockefeller Plaza for performances featuring everything from a slice of retro romance (Kate McSwain's "Love is Strange") to an angular modern dance take on Dave Brubeck (Garrett Kling's "Cryptonym") and some dapper-stepping jazz (Mark Hanretty's "Englishman in New York").

Weisiger, a two-time Olympic team coach who trained three-time U.S. champion Michael Weiss for the bulk of his career and also coached Olympic bronze medalist Tim Goebel, began YAS as part of her Grassroots to Champions organization in 2009. Aspiring choreographers aged 8-18 participate in the "grassroots" division, with those older than 18 competing as "champions."

"The ultimate goal is to mentor young choreographers outside of the realm of elite skating, because elite skating is getting narrower and narrower," Weisiger said. "The international judging system has a lot of limits and a lot of requirements.

"I want to give these kids a chance to create things that have very few restrictions other than a time limit or, periodically, a prop challenge."

Moira North, who founded Ice Theatre of New York (ITNY) in 1984, thinks YAS and ITNY are a natural fit for each other.

"Encouraging and developing young choreographers has always been part of the mission of ITNY," North said. "YAS is a continuation of this tradition, and it was such a pleasure to present this talent."

For Doug Webster, ITNY's artistic director, showcasing the YAS choreographers is an extension of the company's goal to make its concert series community events.

"The idea of the concert series is to bring people together and experience the shared energy of skating performances," said Webster, who trained with Weisiger in his competitive days.

"The young choreographers were so grateful," he continued. "When you're starting your career, to have a performance platform like Rockefeller Plaza -- and photographic images of your work from the great photographers we had here -- is wonderful. I hope it becomes an annual event."

The YAS contest works like this. Applicants provide footage of skating programs, and judges choose the top eight, who then compete in a series of five challenges to determine the winner. Along the way, they're judged by skating greats like Weiss, Sarah Kawahara and Kurt Browning. The public also gets to participate, voting for its favorites via the Internet.

The 22-year-old Kling, a former men's and novice ice dance competitor who performed in ITNY's Dollywood "Christmas on Ice" production this season, credits YAS with helping to turn his dream of becoming a working choreographer into reality.

"I owe the whole kickstart of my career to YAS," said Kling, a 2012 champions division finalist. "I always knew I wanted to be a choreographer. When I discovered this competition, I was in heaven."

"It transformed the way I do choreography," he continued. "The critiques I got from the judges were phenomenal. It felt like a college education."

Since winning YAS, Kling has created a program for ITNY member Eve Chalom and will collaborate with Jodi Porter, founder of the American Ice Theatre in Chicago, on choreography for that company's annual spring gala.

Participating in YAS has also opened up opportunities for McSwain, 26, a former Colorado Springs-based skater who has created show programs for Jeremy Abbott, among others.

"I'll be forever grateful for what Audrey started and the community of artists she has put together," she said. "I'm doing things I never would have done, with people I never would have met.

"Because of YAS, [international choreographer] Tom Dickson invited me to watch the senior ladies with him at nationals. I'm assistant choreographer for one of Rory Flack's shows."

Robert Mauti, 30, a two-time YAS participant and 2011 champions division finalist, thinks the competition helped broaden his choreographic skill beyond solo programs.

"YAS pushed me to choreograph for groups and couples, and to use props," he said. "I became creative in other avenues. I had some praise from the judges, and I also learned a lot from the judges' critiques of other competitors."

While Mauti had choreographed for singles skaters, including U.S. competitor Wesley Campbell, he recently created a show program for ice dancers Lynn Kriengkrairut and Logan Giulietti-Schmitt.

A new group of young choreographers will have the chance to compete in YAS's fourth season. Applications will be available May 1 for a competition that runs August through September, with the finale to be held at Fort Dupont Ice Arena in Washington, D.C., on a to-be-determined date. For more information, visit youngartistsshowcase.net.

Weisiger urges experienced and aspiring choreographers from the skating world and beyond to consider entering.

"Sometimes the kids will call me, frustrated and frightened, and say, 'What if it's no good?' and I'll say, 'Did you like it?'" she said. "Because if they like it, it's worth doing."

"Not everyone likes Picasso, not everyone likes Matisse," she continued. "Something that touches you is good art, and if it touches the artist himself, then it's worth doing."