With wedding anniversaries, the traditional gift for 30 years is a pearl. For the Tennessee Children’s Dance Ensemble, the 30th anniversary is bringing a much bigger gift: the Clayton Center for the Arts at Maryville College.
The Tennessee Children’s Dance Ensemble, based in Knoxville, has put on its spring recital at the University of Tennessee’s Clarence Brown Theatre for the past few years. But when it turned out that Clarence Brown would be closed for renovations come recital time and other usual Knoxville locations such as the Civic Auditorium, the Tennessee Theatre and the Bijou Theatre were already engaged, TCDE had to find a new performance space.
The ensemble ended up booking the Clayton Center’s Ronald and Lynda Nutt Theatre for the 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 25, recital.
“We went, and we looked at the center, and it was a total surprise,” says TCDE artistic director Irena Linn. “Here was this gorgeous theater, all of a sudden. I think it’s wonderful. Everybody is looking forward to working in that theater.”
Amy Renee Wilson, TCDE’s associate artistic director, got a preview of the Clayton Center before it opened last spring.
“I went to see the Clayton Center on one of the first dates that you didn’t have to have a hard hat to go in,” recalls Wilson, who lives in Louisville. “I just walked in, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is an amazing, state-of-the-art theater.’
“I’m excited to be performing in Maryville. We’re hoping we can reach people we haven’t in the last 20 or 30 years.”
The dance ensemble was founded by the late Dr. Dorothy Floyd, who believed that children could and should demonstrate artistic excellence in dance.
Linn says that in the early years, “nobody wanted to accept concert dance from children” and no one would take modern dance from a Southern troupe seriously.
“It was a very interesting phase of prejudice against Tennessee and against children,” she says. People finally “realized through the showcases that this was a modern dance company with very good choreography and very respectable young dancers.”
Floyd and Linn emphasized that everything to do with the ensemble, based at Dancers Studio on Sutherland Avenue, had to be “first class.” By expecting the best from the adults who supported the ensemble, they set an example for the young dancers. TCDE allows children from 8 to 17 to audition.
“Dot always believed that a child could do better,” says Linn. “If they just scribble something in green and blue and yellow, and you praise them, then they think that’s good enough.
“It sounds hard. But the children got better and better and better because we surrounded them with excellent lighting, costumes, choreography; every single thing we did with them was in respect of what they were presenting on the stage.”
After establishing a baseline of excellence, Floyd and Linn began commissioning works from top-tier choreographers.
“We put the choreography into the hands of people who were very well known in the world of dance,” says Linn. Those included Eleo Pomare, Ze’eva Cohen and Mercedes Ellington of New York, Claire Bataille and Shauna Goddard of Chicago, and Regina Klenjoski of Los Angeles.
In the late 1990s, they found Randy Duncan, an award-winning Chicago choreographer who was soon to earn raves for his work as ballet choreographer for the 2001 box-office hit “Save the Last Dance.”
“We saw a piece of his, a modern-dance piece, excellent choreography and passionate,” says Linn. “There was something different about this man and something so moving and beautiful that we wanted to locate him. Once we bought the first dance, we constantly stayed in touch with him. We have now eight or nine suites or big dances of his work (in the repertoire).”
At Friday’s recital, the TCDE will perform that first piece they purchased from Duncan, “Save the Children,” as well as his latest, “Let It Be.” The ensemble has performed one of his works nearly every year since 1999.
Wilson, who was a member of the ensemble from 1985 to 1993, had graduated from Florida State University, where she majored in dance, and was back in Knoxville teaching at Dancers Studio and working with the ensemble when the TCDE-Duncan relationship began.
“His dances are very expressive,” says Wilson. “They involve a lot of dancers, and he pushes the dancers to rise to the level of the choreography.
“He’s my favorite choreographer ever. Every year we ask, ‘What’s Randy going to do next?’ I am really excited to see what he’s going to send our way.”
When he was first approached by the TCDE, Duncan was skeptical.
“I had to come to see them physically for myself,” he says by phone from Chicago. “I was just flabbergasted. They were studying Martha Graham technique, things you don’t usually get young girls working on that early unless they’re in a larger city like Chicago.”
Duncan quickly became a fan.
“I have yet to see another group of female dancers who are out there at their age doing the kind of work they do at such a high level of technique and commitment,” he says. “It’s very, very hard to find that.
“I believe it’s because of Dr. Floyd and Irena Linn and their commitment to professionalism that the company looks the way that it does.”
It’s the same under Linn and Wilson.
“It’s really evident that they are passionate about what they do,” says Duncan, who is flying in for Friday’s performance. “They are committed to making sure young female artists are raised in such a fashion that they are respectful and love the art of dance.”
One of the ensemble’s youngest members is Brittany Tillery, a sixth-grader at Maryville Intermediate School, who joined last July.
“Brittany has fabulous projection for a young dancer,” says Linn. “I could see immediately she has great stage presence.
“She’s only an apprentice, and she’s already in three dances (in the recital). She’s a gifted dancer; she’ll be a good dancer.”
Brittany, 11, started dancing at 3 with Artistic Dance Unlimited and continues to study ballet at Van Metre School of Dance in addition to studying modern dance at Dancers Studio.
“I didn’t really like it at first,” Brittany says of dance, “but now I love it.” Her initial hurdle was that, as a 3-year-old, she had trouble with trying “to stay still and be focused into the movement.”
By the time she was 6, she says, she enjoyed dance and looked forward to classes. She was captivated when she discovered TCDE.
“I really wanted to be a part of it because it was a huge experience that a lot of girls didn’t get, and I just thought it would be a really cool experience,” says Brittany, whose maternal grandmother, Carolyn Ellis of Louisville, was in Dancers Studio’s first “Evening of Dance” at the Carousel Theatre in 1957.
“I personally enjoy modern dance better than ballet because I get to express more in the movement, but I still enjoy ballet a lot,” Brittany says. “I think it’s cool, for my first performance, that I get to perform in my hometown.”