Youth Rising amplifies teen voices engaging the current political climate

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Youth Rising

Coralville Center for the Performing Arts — Friday and Saturday, Aug. 24-25

Dancers perform to a reading by Oriana Bloom during rehearsal for Youth Rising at the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts. Wednesday, August 23, 2017. — photo by Zak Neumann

This weekend, young people from eastern Iowa — 10 writers, 11 spoken word performers and 16 dancers — will present Youth Rising, an exploration of politics, community and their place in it all. The event is presented under the auspices of the Open Doors Dance Festival, a summer-long dance intensive for students ages 12-22. Youth Rising is the final installment of the Open Doors Performance Series. There are four performances: Friday, Aug. 25 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, Aug. 26 at 2, 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15-25.

Leslie Nolte, of Coralville’s Nolte Academy, and Akwi Nji, of Cedar Rapids’ The Hook, spearheaded the concept for Youth Rising. They first collaborated last fall, when Nji invited Nolte’s dancers to join her writers on stage at the Stories of Loss and Found event in Cedar Rapids.

“It was incredibly rewarding and opened my eyes to a new collaboration that I hadn’t been a part of before,” Nolte said in an email.

The two began by speaking to youth ages 10-20 about their opinions and feelings regarding current events, nationally and in their communities. Both writers and dancers were included in these conversations, which resulted in writings such as a letter by a sixth grade girl titled “Dear Mr. Trump” and a piece by a college-aged Muslim woman about feeling like a criminal when flying. The student dancers were able to pour their feelings into the pieces crafted to accompany the writers’ work.

“The dancers and I had constant and deep conversations about the writers’ work,” Nolte said. “The choreography was built on their words, their meaning, their intent and the deep sadness and hope that the writing brought.”

In some cases, the dancers built pieces of their own choreography. “On one particular day, I gave the dancers each a few sentences from a piece called ‘What They Want,'” Nolte said. “They took a good amount of time to create their dance phrase inspired by the writing phrase. When we all got back together, I simply placed their work in the shapes on the stage and a full piece of art was created.”

Dancers rehearse for Youth Rising at the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts. Wednesday, August 23, 2017. — photo by Zak Neumann

As an examination of reactions to politics, it was inevitable that current events continued affecting the work as they, and it, unfolded. Nolte says that lines were added to some of the pieces after events in Charlottesville, Virginia two weeks ago, for example. However, the seeds of all of those additions had already been planted, speaking to the depth of connection that young people already have to the world around them.

“We were dancing about the larger issue of Charlottesville well before that day’s events took place,” Nolte said. “The youth’s writing had race included in so many of the pieces and it was being addressed since the beginning of the process.”

In addition to words and movement, Youth Rising also includes a digital component. Seth Diehl, Eric Kome and Laura Kome directed a backdrop for the production that includes both original digital design and collected pieces of film. The plan is to incorporate student designers in this aspect of the show as well in future iterations.

“We are very interested in getting the youth creating, designing, performing for all facets of the production,” Nolte said.

And Nolte and Nji do absolutely expect future iterations. In addition to continuing to workshop this piece, they also can see the concept moving beyond their specific creation.

“We feel this belongs on high school stages around the state and country,” Nolte said. “Or a version of it with individual communities’ youth taking the creative lead.”

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