The seasoned, sparkling grand finale of the New Orleans Ballet Association main stage season also marks the beginning of eight bright, young careers.
New York-based Parsons Dance has choreographed a new work to Allen Toussaint’s iconic “Yes We Can Can,” featuring a cast of eight New Orleans Recreation Development Commission/NOBA Center for Dance pre-professional students ages 13-18, most of whom have never had the opportunity to dance with a professional company or to live music.
NOBA faculty member Aline Neves de Souza rehearses with the students, videotapes their performance, sends the videos to Parsons Dance Associate Artistic Director Liz Koeppen, and dancer Abby Silva Gavezzoli then implements the feedback.
A culmination of a yearlong project, the students are practicing 15-20 hours per week leading up to the May 10 performance at Mahalia Jackson Theater.
“This has a whole other show quality to it for me, not only because I was once a young girl and I remember being in their shoes, but because this is my hometown,” Metairie native Gavezzoli said. “They are getting an opportunity that even a 30-year-old dancer in New York City doesn’t get. And they’re getting it at 14.”
Gavezzoli describes the dancers as polite, professional, serious and tremendously dedicated at such a young age.
“I remember being so young and eager and hungry like they are,” she said. “There’s just something about being on the other side of it; you’re in there giving, giving, giving, and you feel like you’re the one receiving.”
Mandeville’s Lakeshore High School senior Mercedez Mize was chosen to learn and perform Gavezzoli’s role during a special performance of the work as part of the NORDC/NOBA Center for Dance Spring Concert on May 18 at Tulane University’s Dixon Hall.
“I’m happiest when I’m dancing,” Mize says. “Dancing is literally its own thing; it’s like, asking ‘why do you like to dance?’ is like asking ‘why do you breathe?’ I do it because I have to.”
Lusher Charter School senior Catherine Woodfox said the instruction from Parsons Dance is teaching her to let go — a lesson that applies not just to her performances but to her life in general.
“I know I have a problem letting go,” she says, “but I’m learning to let loose. Liz and Abby are teaching me to throw away the technique, that it’s OK to get down and have a little bit of fun.”
Chalmette High School junior Ashlie Russell says the rehearsals are long and hard but teach them to keep pushing and keep going.
“You can’t give up, can’t stop,” Russel says. “We can apply this to our regular lives at school, dancing or even a job.”
Understudy Tatiana Jacques says even if she doesn’t perform, she’s taken considerable life lessons from the experience, which has been challenging in ways she can’t quite explain.
“I can’t explain myself in words,” Jacques says, “but I can explain it in dance.”
Koeppen praises NOBA for the commission, which, she said, is really three shows in one: Parsons Dance regular repertoire, the premiere of the young dancers from NORDC/NOBA and the live music from legendary New Orleans piano man and producer, Toussaint.
“I feel I’ve had a big part of education through execution, and that’s very special,” Koeppen said. “They bring a lot of energy to the room. It’s going to be like birthing something on May 10.”
“It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what your background is,” Koeppen said. “This program gives everyone an opportunity to be on the same page and be pushed by professionals. And these kids are getting it all for free. It’s really unbelievable.”
The most basic things in dance, Emma Loetzerich explains, are the first things a dancer learns and the last thing they will master.
“You’re never going to be perfect at it, but the way you perform it is your thoughts of perfection,” Loetzerich said. “You make it your own. There’s technique to it, but people have their limits, and that’s your whole goal, to stretch your limits until you reach as good as you can be.”
Dancing, Kennedy Dorsey said, is not what they do; it’s who they are.
Other dancers chosen for the performance are Isabella Beninate, Celeste Jupiter, Taylor Landry, Cori Lewis, Tia Peck and Jaelyn Robinson.
“As a dancer on stage, there’s no greater feeling of excitement than live music,” Koeppen said. “The musicians might jazz out and change tempo, and you have to be on your toes and adapt to that and it’s really, really fun.”
The world premiere performance is at 8 p.m. May 10 at Mahalia Jackson Theater, 1419 Basin St. Tickets range from $20-$80 and may be purchased through the NOBA Box Office at (504) 522-0996 or online at www.NOBAdance.com, and through Ticketmaster at (800) 745-3000 or www.ticketmaster.com. Discounts are available for students, seniors and groups.