The air inside the dance studio at the King Street Arts Centre is thick with concentration. Off-stage, a tiny dancer practises a sequence with deliberate care. In the stage area, two slightly-less-tiny dancers execute a duet comprising lifts and subtle gestures. Around the edges of the room, five other youngsters stand, some stretching, some watching and waiting for their cue.
This is a rehearsal for Trois Generations (3G), French choreographer Jean-Claude Gallotta's work in which three generations of dancers each perform the same dance score. Today I'm watching the first generation, who range in age from eight ("I'm turning nine in 20 days!") to 13.
"Trois Generations is about the way that the body changes, what the years do to us," says rehearsal director for the first generation, Alice Lee Holland. "The work moves through three distinct life stages - childhood, then the physical prime of your life - young adulthood. The last stage is when the body has shifted out of its prime. The choreography is simple, and it's the same general structure for all three groups. In that simplicity you can clearly see what is happening in the body - you can see those shifts (that happen as a result of age) as you see the three different casts perform. It's very simple … and very beautiful."
Watching the eight young dancers being put through the paces of their 20-minute section, the simple beauty of the work is striking, but so is the focus and maturity of the child dancers.
Their demeanour, both on and off stage is … adult. This choreography has been created for performance by adult bodies and to an adult audience. Yet these young dancers have captured the nuances of this "grown-up" choreography.
These are not children playing at being dancers. They are dancers - professional, just … smaller than usual. When I make this observation to Holland, she agrees. "We don't treat them like children and, terrifyingly, they don't behave like children - until break. Then they pull out their iPads and start playing games and they're absolutely children. But when they're rehearsing? They're not young dancers, they're just small dancers."
The Perth Festival co-production by Strut Dance and Steps Youth Dance hasn't been an easy road, though, Holland says.
The Steps artistic director's rehearsal process with young dancers is normally quite different. "At Steps we make work collaboratively. The dancers contribute to the work conceptually but also with their own movement."
Trois Generations, by comparison, is a work that has already been created. Rehearsal directors Holland, Danielle Micich (second generation) and Sue Peacock (third generation) and their respective casts have used video footage of a previous French cast's performance to mount the work.
"I'll be honest," says Holland, "The first eight rehearsals were actually really hard. It was slow - Jess (assistant rehearsal director Jessica Lewis) and I would have to learn duets and teach them - the dancers can't necessarily learn from a video. Then there is very little shared material in the piece so you have to work with one dancer at a time."
The turning point came after the summer holidays. "We had a month off over Christmas after those eight weeks. We were only halfway through the work. When we came back after the break they were different dancers. I don't know if it was having a rest or the fact that they were starting to get into the swing of it but we finished the piece within the next five days. So it was hard and slow at the start but that really laid the groundwork for the rest of the rehearsal period."
Speaking to dancers Emma Hutchinson, 8, and Alex de Prazer, 9, it is clear the rehearsals have provided plenty of challenges but, in spite of having just completed a gruelling four-hour session, they are enthusiastic about it all.
"It's really hard but it's really fun," Emma says, grinning. "I like hard stuff."
Both agree, however, that they aren't that keen on warming-up. "I just want to get into dancing," explains Alex. Watching them rehearse, their love of movement and the passion for performance is evident. "Mostly I prefer dancing with an audience," Alex says.
The young dancers are looking forward to working with the other two generations. They've already watched some of the third-generation's rehearsals. "It's kind of the same but different, a sort of parallel dance to ours," says Alex. "It is like we get older and we go from this to that."
The third generation involves some of Perth's dance luminaries, with names like Chrissie Parrott and Ronnie Van den Bergh among the cast. Having watched Emma, Alex and the rest of the first generation perform, it seems that this could indeed be the future for these young dancers.
Trois Generations (3G) is at the Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre, from tonight to Saturday.