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3 choreographers talk about upcoming competition

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

"Did you notice we haven't started talking about competition yet?" remarks San Francisco-based choreographer K.T. Nelson.

A salient observation given that Nelson is one of three choreographers — along with Dominic Walsh of Houston and Nelly van Bommel of New York — who applied to be finalists in Ballet Austin's third "New American Talent" competition.

The trio met for the first time recently over early morning coffee at Blu Caf?, kitty-corner from Ballet Austin's Austin Ventures Studio Theater where in March each will present a new 20- to 30-minute dance to audiences and to a panel of nationally recognized jurors.

Ballet Austin is one of the few professional dance companies in the nation to host a choreography competition for rising or mid-career dancemakers. For "New American Talent" — held every two years — each finalist gets a stipend, technical support and two weeks with the Ballet Austin dancers to create a new work. When the project is presented in March, each of the three judges can distribute $5,000 among the three choreographers as they choose. Immediately after the show, the audience will get a chance to vote for its favorite, too, for another $5,000 award.

Up for grabs: A total of $20,000.

But, at least for the moment, Nelson, Walsh and van Bommel don't have their eyes focused on the prize. No, they're simply thrilled to be given a ballet company of dancers and the space and time to create.

Walsh, who danced for years with Houston Ballet before starting his own contemporary ballet company, can't wait to see the technical capabilities of the recently built Ballet Austin venue. Walsh welcomes the challenge of working with new dancers. "Each dancer brings something different to the process of creating dance," he says. "They're really as much a collaborator as anything else."

Like most New York-based choreographers who are in constant search of affordable rehearsal space, van Bommel looks forward to spending two full weeks in one place with the Ballet Austin dancers. "That will feel like a luxury," she says.

One of three artistic directors of modern dance company ODC/San Francisco, Nelson says she's eager to work with ballet dancers. "The ballet-trained body is very articulate," she says. "Really, a ballet dancer is an incredibly well-rounded athlete."

Nelson also believes ballet is where it's at. "The revolution is in ballet right now," she says. During the past century, modern dance challenged ballet, she notes, deconstructing its formalities and confronting the authority of its aesthetic. But not so much anymore. Now, with a diversified ballet aesthetic and modern dance firmly a part of the creative establishment, ballet's inherent discipline is ripe for experimentation, Nelson says. "There's a lot to be explored in how a ballet-trained dancer can articulate modern choreography," she says.

There's also a lot to explore and ponder about the whole nature of dance and its current public profile. With the hyper-popularity of shows like "So You Think You Can Dance" and "Dancing With the Stars," arguably more people are watching dance — well, at least some form of dance — than ever before.

And Nelson, Walsh and van Bommel don't think that's a bad thing.

"I think that at least (the shows) get people to talk about dance," says Nelson. "And that's good because talking about dance — describing dance — is hard for many people."

Whether that newfound dance chatter around the country will inspire television audiences to move off the couch and to a theater to see live dance remains to be seen. But the whole format of the competition — the process of a dance done on a deadline and in response to a challenge — shows people, van Bommel says, "that dance involves a lot of work and doesn't just happen out of nowhere."

And if the audience members can vote for their favorite in "New American Talent" just like with "Dancing With the Stars" and "So You Think You Can Dance?"

"It's a win-win situation, no matter how you look at it," says Walsh.

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699