When Alice Teirstein came to New York City to attend Adelphi University, she studied with modern dance greats including Hanya Holm and Charles Weidman. While a student, she also began to teach dance and choreograph for plays on campus. “It came naturally to me to pass on to others what I had received from dance,” she says.
Teirstein has built an entire career doing just that, beginning in the 1970s by founding and designing the dance program at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, a private school in New York City. She also created the Fieldston Dance Company, a program in which students choreographed and performed original works and toured to venues off campus, including homeless shelters and public schools. At the time, says Teirstein, dance offerings in New York City public schools were limited, especially when it came to classes that emphasized improvisation and composition. To bridge this gap, she founded Young Dancemakers Company (YDC) in 1996, bringing creative dance education to public school students. The program, which recently completed its 26th season, is tuition-free, includes meals and transportation for dancers, and culminates in performances that are free and open to the public. “People from all walks of life can participate,” she says.
“Alice really believes that young people have a lot to say about the world, and that they can say it through dance,” says Jessica Gaynor, a choreographer, educator and former student of Teirstein’s at the Fieldston School who is now YDC’s artistic director. “She takes that very seriously. And whether you’re her student or her colleague, creative disagreements are also very much welcome. That’s the way she treats everyone. When she works with young people, there’s a real dialogue, and genuine respect.”
YDC holds auditions each spring, selecting a group of teenage dancers of all backgrounds, styles and experience levels. The program takes place over the summer and lasts for about five weeks, beginning with a period where the students gather to see dance performances. Then, they head into the studio, training together for three and a half weeks. “The first week is really all improvisation and compositional work and exploring,” says Gaynor. “It drives home this idea of coming to the studio and making work together, and creating as a team.”
“Improvisation is the key,” says Teirstein. “Creating from within. Ideas that come to you personally that you pass on. We ask teenagers to explore themselves, to explore their own ideas and talk about them and experience them.”
The young choreographers write proposals detailing dances they would like to make, and then have about 10 rehearsals to create those dances. The program culminates in a tour, where YDC participants perform their works in seven or eight concerts at several venues across New York City. “Performing a work multiple times really helps the choreographer understand what they’re creating,” says Teirstein. “Because a dance is never really finished.” This year, due to the pandemic, the students performed in five free, outdoor concerts, and one concert that was livestreamed from a theater.
As part of YDC’s Choreographer + Composer Project, curated by YDC music director William Catanzaro, students also have the opportunity to collaborate with professional composers to create original music for their dances. “To align with living, breathing composers, who are creating at that moment, and imparting their creative thoughts to us, is important,” says Teirstein. This collaborative process also furthers one of the key elements of her philosophy: that the movement should come first. Before the Choreographer + Composer Project, Teirstein says that some students would have very set ideas about what music they wanted to use, which limited their expression.
This is one of many elements of Teirstein’s instruction that Gaynor says shaped her as a teacher and an artist. “I always start from the movement, never from the music, even though I’m now married to a composer,” she says. “The starting point for the piece is always coming from me and what’s on my mind, as Alice would say.”
As a former student and now colleague, Gaynor has a special relationship with Teirstein. “But I’m one of many,” she says. “Alice is so interested in each young person she works with. And she has such big ideas. She’s taken Young Dancemakers Company to perform at The Yard on Martha’s Vineyard, and they’ve performed at Jacob’s Pillow. I think it’s important for young artists to know that you can be dreaming beyond your studio, or wherever you are.”
Teirstein did all this while continuing to choreograph and perform for decades, serving as further inspiration for her students. Her own work has been shown at venues including Jacob’s Pillow, Symphony Space and Dance Theater Workshop (now merged into New York Live Arts), and she has danced with artists including Janis Brenner, Claire Porter and Gus Solomons jr. “She’s a born performer,” says Gaynor. “Once she was up onstage answering question, and a young kid in the audience asked her if she was still dancing. She said, ‘Am I still dancing?’ And slid down into a split.”
“I am so grateful that I gravitated toward dance, because it gave me so much,” says Teirstein. “The art of dance is so flexible—pardon the word—and it gives.”