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Gaining Altitude: Jefferson Dancers annual Spring Concert to feature students’ award-winning choreography

The performances, April 20-22 at the Newmark Theatre, showcase the resilience and versatility of this nationally acclaimed high school dance company.

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The acclaimed Jefferson Dancers will present their annual spring showcase April 20-22. Photo by Leif Sjouist.

Dance is a powerful way to express resilience, and the 2023 Spring Concert by Jefferson High School’s Jefferson Dancers promises to express that, and much more. 

Coming out of the pandemic years filled with determination and creativity, the company will display their impressive versatility in their spring showcase, April 20-22 at the Newmark Theatre in downtown Portland. The show features African, ballet, jazz, modern, contemporary, hip hop, tap, and even aerial pole dances. Two of the nine dances featured recently received national recognition for their student choreographers.

Top honors for Outstanding Student Choreography

Last month the Jefferson Dancers competed at the 2023 National High School Dance Festival in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where John Kearney, a senior dancer, was awarded first place for Outstanding Student Choreography with “You’ll Be Happy”. Fellow senior dancer Eli Bryan’s dance “Altitude Sickness” was awarded 3rd place, also in Outstanding Student Choreography. This is the first time in the 31-year history of the national competition that one school won two of the top awards.

John Kearney, a senior with the Jefferson Dancers, was awarded first place for Outstanding Student Choreography with his dance “You’ll Be Happy” at the 2023 National High School Dance Festival. Photo by Leif Sjouist.

Kearney’s winning choreography, “You’ll Be Happy” is about experiencing and coming out of the frustration, isolation, and sadness felt during the pandemic. “’You’ll Be Happy,’ was born out of the darkest time my family has ever experienced,” says Kearney. “This piece has been a medium through which I can reflect on that time of my life—and heal.”

Eli Bryan’s dance is about facing challenges, too. “‘Altitude Sickness’ is a piece that comments on dedication, perseverance, and self discipline,” says Bryan. “It was partially inspired by the book ‘Into Thin Air’ by Jon Krakauer, using the journey up and down Mt. Everest as a metaphor for facing extreme challenges head on. It presents the idea of giving everything you have to a goal, and that regardless of the uncertainties of the outcome, having the knowledge that the only way out is through.” 

Eli Bryan’s piece “Altitude Sickness” was awarded 3rd place for Outstanding Student Choreography at the 2023 National High School Dance Festival. Photo by Leif Sjouist.

An arduous, slow build goes into creating these award-winning dance moments. Making it to peak levels of dance – as with sports – is the result of countless hours of stretching, struggle, learning, and practice, on repeat daily. Supporting this work takes a labyrinth of teachers, parents and caregivers, mentors, and friends.

“It’s a huge commitment,” said Kearney about dancing with the Jefferson Dancers in a recent interview with Oregon Public Broadcasting. “You have very little free time, and you don’t get to hang out with all your friends as much. However, the relationships you form in that room, in the dungeon studio with those 16-18 people are unlike any other. It’s blood, sweat, and tears. It’s love. It’s a commitment that you all share, and that is completely unique. I am so incredibly grateful for the training we’ve received.”

Sponsor

Portland Columbia Symphony Realm of Nature Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

“Dream”, a hip-hop dance performed by the Jefferson Dancers and choreographed by Durante Lambert, a choreographer, artistic director, and former Jefferson Dancer, from SOAR, an annual benefit performance for the dance company. Photo by Leif Sjouist.

A thriving network of dance artists

Jefferson Dancers is Portland’s longest-running dance company, with a 47-year history. The company has had just three artistic directors, including Steve Gonzales, the current artistic director who himself was a Jefferson Dancer. Several of the current artistic staff are also former Jefferson Dancers.

The company’s training is rigorous. Students are expected to attend at least 1.5 hours of technique classes and three hours of rehearsal five days a week after school. The commitment and the skill level means only a select few get into the program each year. 

“The unique thing about the Jefferson Dancers is that we perform in many different styles of dance. We are looking for dancers who are diverse and or proficient in these various styles of dance including ballet, tap, jazz, modern, hip-hop, and African dance,”  says Gonzales about the audition process. “We are a training ground for young aspiring students, and we are looking for dancers who are hard working, focused, and motivated.”

“Wolosodon,” an African dance performed by the Jefferson Dancers and choreographed by Bunky Williams, a former Jefferson Dancer and current Artistic Director of the Jefferson Dancers II, from this year’s SOAR benefit performance. Photo by Leif Sjouist.

Because of the high level of skill and discipline required by this high school training company, the dancers are well respected nationally and internationally. Over the years, Jefferson Dancers have branched out to become a flourishing network of dance professionals that extends throughout the U.S. and beyond. Dancers have gone on to perform on Broadway and at the Dance Theatre of Harlem in New York, Luna Negra Dance in Chicago, Ballet West in Salt Lake City, Staatstheater Nüernberg in Germany, and Batsheva Dance Company and Vertigo Dance Company in Israel, among many others.

Some Jefferson Dancers have gone on to create their own dance companies. Others have worked and choreographed for major artists, including Beyonce, Janet Jackson, and Lady Gaga. They have danced in TV shows and movies, including “Glee,” “Ted 2,” “La La Land,” and “The Prom.” The founder of the Netflix series “We Speak Dance” was a Jefferson Dancer.

The acclaimed Jefferson Dancers present their annual spring showcase, April 20-22 at the Newmark Theatre in downtown Portland. Photo by Leif Sjouist.

Strong Portland roots

Jefferson Dancers enrich the regional arts scene, too. Many perform, choreograph, and teach around the city including at Oregon Ballet Theatre, Fusion Dance Company, Muddy Feet Dance, and more.

Public middle school dance programs are an essential part of the ecosystem that prepares students to audition for Jefferson Dancers. Two of the middle school programs that feed the company are led by former Jefferson Dancers. In Northeast Portland, at da Vinci Arts Middle School, dance is one of the focus options offered, and the program is directed by choreographer and former Jefferson Dancer Sara Martins. Ockley Green Middle School in North Portland has a vibrant dance program led by Damon Keller, a choreographer and former Jefferson Dancer. Instruction by drummer and dancer Derrell Sekou Walker in African Dance at Faubion Middle School in NE Portland and Tubman Middle School in North Portland is invaluable to students as they step up into the Jefferson program. 

Sponsor

Seattle Opera The Life and Times of MalcolmX McCaw Hall Seattle Washington

A former Jefferson Dancer himself, Damon Keller now leads the dance program for 6th, 7th, and 8th graders at Ockley Green Middle School, one of several Portland schools that send students on to the Jefferson High School program. Video courtesy of Portland Public Schools Communications.

The fact that Jefferson Dancers stay in or return to Portland to perform, choreograph, and teach creates strong roots for the program and seasoned alumni provide an evolving catalyst for new work, energy, and enthusiasm. 

It has been an incredible year for these dancers, one that may seem difficult for next year’s company members to top, but it will certainly be interesting to see what this dynamic group does next.

Spring Concert tickets

Performances are at the Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway in downtown Portland, on April 20-22. Tickets are available through Portland’5 Centers for the Arts.

Jefferson Dance Company auditions

Auditions for the Jefferson Dance Company will be held from 4 pm to 6:30 pm on June 5-6 at Jefferson High School, 5210 N Kerby Avenue, Portland. The first day the dancers will be auditioning in ballet, tap, and African. The second day they will be auditioning in hip-hop, modern, and jazz dance. Interested students in Grades 7-11 must register to audition on the Jefferson Dancer website.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Jean Zondervan does communications work and enjoys creating content for causes. She has written and produced collaborative projects for print, web, exhibits, and video and has a particular interest in exploring environmental and social issues through the arts. Prior to settling in Portland, she taught English as a first and second language in Texas and South Korea, worked at the Art Institute of Chicago and a small gallery in England, and grew up on a farm in Minnesota. She currently tends to kids, pets, and a large garden in North Portland.

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