Francisco Gella is a distinguished dancer, teacher, and choreographer. As a master ballet teacher and director with Break the Floor Productions, he reaches legions of students every year, but the passionate innovator wants to do even more. “I love this art form,” he says. “But we as a community need to do more to help it evolve and connect with more audiences.” To this end, Gella launched The New Century Dance Project, a new and unique festival, in Utah this summer. The World Dances caught up with him after the festival to discuss NCDP and Gella’s vision for dance’s future, as well as his own.
Can you please tell us about the New Century Dance Project?
The NCDP is a pioneering youth dance festival. I travel quite a bit and I teach at different settings, not only conventions, but conservatories and commercial studios. And I notice there’s still a divide between the concert and commercial worlds, but a lot of the competition studio kids are infiltrating into the concert dance world. Many of them graduate and go to top conservatories, Juilliard, USC Kaufman, etc. The lines are starting to blur. There’s integration happening in terms of training and interest, but there’s nothing to help these dancers transition or give them opportunities to connect with different professional in other parts the dance world. So we created this festival to link students with different facets of the dance world. You’ve got different people from different backgrounds coming together. We provided classes in different genres, commercial and concert, and we also had symposia where students were able to ask about questions from different areas of concern—how to audition, how to pay for college, the difference between auditioning for a concert company and a Broadway production, and more. We also had a combination of performances where the professionals and their respective companies came to perform from all over the country. And we had choreographers come to present their work. It was a culmination of putting all these genres together and it was really exciting because nothing like that has ever been done. There hasn’t been a festival that merges together the university programs with the concert and convention worlds. The students are starting to cross over and there isn’t any other platform for them to make these connections where they can meet different professionals and ask questions.
It’s going to grow. We have more ideas for next year. For example, how to implement dance on film? We could have professors from college programs and recruiters come in. We’re looking at is as not a way to cave to trends but really catering to the needs of the students.
What do you think is driving this phenomenon of crossing over between the competition and concert worlds?
The convention world has been an interesting thing for me. They’re all about competition. They used to do these typical competition pieces, not always very artistic. Now I’m seeing more and more competition studios doing more contemporary work, with almost a European sensibility. They’re seeing the amazing art that’s out there and wanting to be at that level. More studios are trying to accomplish that level of artistic integrity and taking their training more seriously. For instance, the company that I work for is Gil Stroming’s Break the Floor Productions. These kids aren’t just coming to L.A. and getting agents. They’re going to some of the top schools in the country now and pursuing their training more seriously after their competition days. Now the problem is that there are all these dancers being trained but there aren’t enough companies to support the demand.
What do you think is behind the lack of dance companies?
There have been a lot of companies that have folded. We need to develop enough patrons to appreciate and support the community. But I also notice that there are a lot of companies that aren’t connecting with the current zeitgeist. This model of company, choreographer, and artistic director is sort of fine, but people want more of a reason for them to exist. What else is there besides the old repertories? The general public can just watch dance on Youtube, so we need to be doing more to inspire them. We have to question ourselves. I’m hopeful that in the future our festival will help the dance community move the art form forward and stay connected and relevant to audiences. I also look at dance education as an opportunity. Whatever happens with these students, even if they decide not to become professional, we’ve fostered their love for this art form and they’ll hopefully go to see performances for their entire lives.
What do you think would help companies connect powerfully with audiences?
People want a stronger purpose, maybe involvement with humanitarianism. Most people who aren’t dancers might not be grabbed unless a company is saying something that they’ll care about because it’s part of the human experience. One idea is that you could have a dance company that, for part of their season, creates work around human rights. It would connect with audiences and give the audience a bigger reason to be inspired. I’m envisioning the human rights idea because it gives back. Right now it’s just not enough to have a famous choreographer and amazing dancers. People want a cause.
If we continue in the current scale of design the only companies that survive will be the major ones with the huge endowments. But we need more companies than that. I’m hoping that the festival is just a beginning, but if we’re going to change things we have to start nurturing this next generation when they’re young—not just to train new dancers but new dance lovers. Hopefully by developing these symposia and discussions we can cultivate strategies as an entire art community to ensure the whole art form continues to evolve. We need to be thinking further ahead.
Looking ahead, what do you think the future of dance holds?
Our art has evolved constantly. Every hundred years or so someone rebels and breaks the mold. Think about Martha Graham rebelling against the ballet idiom, or Balanchine rejecting traditional ballet and implementing American dance. I think this era isn’t about rebellion; it’s about integration. I’m very lucky because I work in various segments of the business so I can really see the big picture and put all the pieces together. The kids are wanting more. There’s a hunger for understanding and integrating all the parts together.
You’re such a beloved teacher. What do you think allows you to reach your students so effectively?
There are things I experienced in my dancing career that were very negative that I thought were really wrong and abusive. I promised myself that if I were in a position to impact artists I would never, ever pass on those neuroses to anyone I work with, be it student or professional. I always collaborate and respect them. I might be the choreographer, but I always see the dancers as equal. If they don’t like my class or working with me, they won’t love dancing my pieces and that’s the last thing I want. In the old school days, they’d beat you down to make you tough. When that was done to me, I felt horrible and the dancing in those situations would become just a job. But when I loved the work and working with a teacher or choreographer, I would dig down and find so much more to give, even when I was exhausted. I treat everyone with respect. I share my experience and principles but I’m never condescending. If you treat dancers with dignity and respect—push them but in a way that doesn’t make them feel inadequate—that respect gets given back. When they love to do your work the work ends up evolving and becoming more emotionally powerful.
What are your goals for your future?
I would love to keep working on conventions, doing my programs, working with the kids, but to also choreograph more with the big companies. The commissions and reviews are coming, so this is the next part. The ultimate goal is to start my own dance company. All of the experiences I’m having now will play into how the company will be run and funded.
What kind of dancers would you like to work with in your company?
I want them to be individual. My company would be a hybrid company, with ballet dancers, contemporary dancers, dancers with different training backgrounds and body types. It doesn’t matter how you look; it matters how you dance. It’s the power you exude that makes you compelling to watch, not the genetics you were born with. Mine would be a company of dancers not driven by ego but rather by how they can inspire and change people’s lives. I don’t look for flaws; I look for potential.
Photo: Francisco Gella working with students at the New Century Dance Project festival