Becky Acton hardly misses a beat.
“Holding back is a dancer’s biggest enemy,” she said, gathering with her peers in Denton City Contemporary Ballet.
Acton’s T-shirt is wet. Long strands of hair cling to her neck, and the dancer seems to swing her legs in a wide split unconsciously as the company members sit on the floor of the biggest studio at Denton Dance Conservatory. The young women have been rehearsing for more than five hours, getting ready for a festival in Austria that returning dancers say changed their lives.
“You can’t hold back the emotions,” Acton said, her peers nodding. “It doesn’t make sense, and if you do that, you aren’t really dancing at all.”
The ballet company will board a flight on June 23. The group is headed to Austria — and its second appearance at the Young! Tanzsommer dance festival. The festival hustles 10 young dance companies from all over the world to venues, some indoors and some outside, throughout the city of Innsbruck. Young! Tanzsommer is an auxiliary to the larger Austrian arts festival, Tanzsommer.
For Lisa Racina-Torre, the artistic director of the company, the trip is another milestone.
“This is a rare experience for my dancers,” she said. “I’m more proud of them than I can say.”
Racina-Torre took the company to Young! Tanzsommer in 2011, after Dallas ballet superstar Thom Clower visited her studio in west Denton and told her that her humble company had grown up.
Racina-Torre fell in love with classical ballet as a tot. She grew up at Denton Ballet Academy, studied dance in college and launched her studio decades ago. She started a company after she found her footing. She anchors her dancers with ballet, but gives them a huge menu of dance forms to absorb: modern, jazz, tap, swing and hip-hop. More than one of her studio faculty has competed on the TV dance competition So You Think You Can Dance.
Founded in 1989, the Denton City Contemporary Ballet includes dancers age 13 to adult from Argyle, Aubrey, Corinth, Denton, Flower Mound, Krum, Oak Point, Ponder, Providence Village and Sanger. The company has conducted the Collage: Denton Dance Festival, the holiday favorite A Gift for Emma and a double bill of Peter and the Wolf and Carnival of the Animals. The company also sponsors the Community Master Class Series, and has developed a scholarship awarded annually to a dancer from Denton County to help offset the costs of attending a summer dance intensive program.
Dancer Eylin Aguilar went to the festival in 2011. She said Acton is right about emotion being the meat and potatoes of performance.
“I feel like the more emotion, the better the performance,” Aguilar said. “And the thing is, you really have to have that when you’re rehearsing. If you don’t practice full-out, there’s no way you’re going to be able to call it up when you perform. But I feel like even if you practice full-out, you still go to another level when you’re in front of an audience.”
Racina-Torre and fellow choreographers Hannah Briggs and Samantha Neal have kept their dances smart, too. In preparation for the festival, they’ve pulled some dances from the company’s repertoire that use modern pop music and slow-burn flamenco. The new choreography they’re taking to Austria deftly employs indie folk music and pop.
The dancers — the oldest of whom are entering their senior year in Denton high schools — clearly connect with the language and sound of the music. After rehearsing “I See Fire,” by popular British singer Ed Sheeran, Racina-Torres blinked back tears and a junior company member ran one hand down a limber arm covered in goosebumps. (The studio was muggy with body heat, breath and musky sweat. The goosebumps were a product of music and evocative movement.)
Neal said rehearsals drill muscle memory into the dancers. The choreographers make circuits of the studio, calling out directions and demands at the company members.
“Don’t mark it!” Neal shouts over the music as the dancers grab their heads, then throw their arms up and wide. “Hit! Hit! Hit!”
She pauses the music to drill the dancers on her piece “Final Words.”
“Really pull yourself down,” she said, demonstrating a gesture. “And here, think tension. Think resistance. Resist. Don’t just do the movement.”
Neal turns away from the mirror and says to the panting dancers.:
“You guys. Really resist. You have to challenge you’re own body. When you feel it, give a little more. As soon as it feels like you’re overdoing it, you’re getting close. Almost there. Now, let’s go again.”
Neal said practicing full-out, even if it brings tears to a dancer’s eyes, is the only way to get ready to go live.
“The adrenaline does make the performance difference,” she said. “The dance, it gets stuck in you. The movements — that’s just the basics. The dance is there when you have the moves and the emotion.”
Jessica Fischer is making her first trip to Tanzsommer. She said the first-timers are quizzing the dancers who will return to the festival about what to expect.
“They’ve been talking about the whole experience,” Fischer said. “The whole thing, just being over there and how different it is.”
Alexis Nasr, a junior company member, said she’s itching for the enthusiastic audiences the festival alumnae recalled.
“They said the audiences love to watch dance over there,” she said. “When they clap, they stomp their feet. No one has ever done that after one of my performances here.”
Senior company member Raquel Gonzalez said the Denton group had fans when they attended in 2011.
“At one of our performances, this little boy was screaming at Becky the whole time,” she said. “He kept yelling ‘Miss America! Miss America!’ And at the end of the dance, Becky blew him a kiss and he about died. All his friends grabbed him and were like, ‘Omigod! You’re so lucky!’”
Fischer said they’re sometimes lucky to get “golf claps” after performances in the States.
Racina-Torre said the company is traveling with dances that range from contemporary ballet to jazz and modern dance.
“That is the idea, actually,” Racina-Torre said. “We want to show that our dancers can dance just about every major form.”
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877.
Denton City Contemporary Ballet is bringing a variety of dances to the Young! Tanzsommer dance festival in Austria:
“El Tango de los Asesinos” — Tension, mystery and destruction befalls a “love triangle” gone wrong. The dancers portray the “other woman,” then the “jilted lover” and finally the scorned woman bent on revenge. The movements reveal both passion and cold calculation. Choreographed by Lisa Racina-Torre, premiered in 2011. Set to John Powell’s “El Tango de los Asesinos (Assassins’ Tango)” from the film Mr. and Mrs. Smith.
“Bang Bang” — Sass and indiscretion collide in this modern jazz piece. The style of 1920s flappers fuses with modern jazz dance — the reliable steps from the Charleston are peppered with jazz leaps and turns. Choreographed by Hannah Briggs. Set to “Bang Bang” by will.i.am from the soundtrack of the film The Great Gatsby.
“I See Fire” — Dancers employ contemporary ballet to represent the age-old forces of good and evil fighting through a terrible tragedy. Images of violence eventually transform into man helping his fellow man and lifting one another to God. Choreographed by Lisa Racina-Torre. Set to Ed Sheeran’s “I See Fire” from the end credits of the film The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
“Final Words” — The company first performed this piece in its annual recital last year. It details a breaking point. Journals are used as props to represent a lover’s thoughts about a disintegrating relationship. Silence is punctuated by the heartbroken lover finally breaking and showing his true feelings. Choreographed by Samantha Neal. Set to “The Elephant in the Room” by Richard Walters.
“Explosions” — This contemporary piece depicts disappointment in a relationship, leaving those engaged caught between anger and love. The company performed this piece in a recital last year. The movement is gestural and expansive. Choreographed by Samantha Neal. Set to “Explosions” by Ellie Goulding.