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Between Two Worlds

Francisco Gella and New Century Dance Project connect competitive and concert dance styles.

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SHARON KAIN
  • Sharon Kain

Statewide, competitive dance is a big deal. Think little girls caked in makeup and sequins, popping their hips and doing split leaps—it's flashy and designed to impress judges. Local and national competitions, like the Spotlight Dance Cup, take place in Utah cities throughout the year. From Orem's Center Stage Performing Arts Studio to Ogden's Studio 48, dozens of instructors teach kids (mostly young girls) how to turn ballet, hip-hop, jazz funk, modern and tap into a spectacle that wins awards.

This, however, is the kind of movement that tends to make dancers from ballet or modern backgrounds cringe.

Choreographer Francisco Gella is keenly aware of the disconnect between what he calls "concert dance" and commercial/competition dance, and he believes that some healthy cross-pollinating could be a huge benefit for both.

Last year, Gella launched the New Century Dance Project in Salt Lake City, in partnership with Repertory Dance Theatre (RDT). Now, this pioneering program brings together youth—mostly from competitive dance backgrounds—and professionals from both competition and concert worlds for a week of intensive training that culminates in a single public performance at the Rose Wagner Center this weekend.

More than just a student recital, the performance also features professionals from RDT and SALT Contemporary Dance, along with Michal Wozniak of Phoenix Ballet, Katie Critchlow of Ballet West and others.

Bridging these two worlds is something of a specialty niche for Gella. Born and raised in the Philippines, he was first exposed to dance through movies. He watched Gene Kelly tap dancing in Singin' in the Rain and envied Kevin Bacon's '80s grooves in Footloose. In college at the University of Washington, where he earned a B.A. in dance, he received formal training rooted in dance history and technique, then went on to perform for several major U.S. companies, including RDT from 1996-98.

He always kept a toe in the commercial world—whether by creating choreography for the students at Utah's Center Stage Performing Arts school, or judging national competitions. Balanced between the two forms, he has a unique perspective on the strengths and weaknesses of each.

"I'm advocating for the concert dance world, but they need to understand that they need an audience," Gella says in a phone interview. Having people know who you are and showing up to your performances, he says, is "not a need that's limited to the commercial perspective." He sees professional dance companies suffering because "they just don't have an audience."

An audience is something that commercial dance has in spades, partially because it's easy to find in pop culture. All you need to do is turn on the television, or watch an online video. Commercial dance also boasts a flashy style that grabs people's attention.

Gella isn't advocating for concert dancers to change their training or their technique to look more like they're in a music video. Instead, he thinks that part of the solution could be as simple as getting to know those on the opposite side of the aisle. "I would teach at Center Stage, and they didn't know about RDT," Gella says. "They didn't even know there was this kind of dancing in Utah."

The problem, as he sees it, is twofold. When commercial dance doesn't even recognize the history and foundation of concert dance that they draw upon, Gella says, "they are stealing traditions without integrity—cheapening it. That bothers me." And often, children exposed to dance through competition studios aren't given the necessary tools to continue into professional careers.

The New Century Dance Project addresses these issues. Local mentors—like Kayla Kalbfleisch, a faculty member at Provo-based competition studio 24 Seven Dance, and Nathan Balser, assistant professor of contemporary dance at Brigham Young University—take these young dancers under their wing, teaching them the foundations of technique and artistry, all in preparation for becoming the next big thing. Who knows? It might not be long before these fresh faces take the spotlight in a professional dance company or music video.

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