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Teenage impresarios: two 14-year-olds take a hands-on approach to producing dance. (Young Dancer[R]).

ON A RECENT SATURDAY, JOANNA POZ-MOLESKY STRODE ACROSS A REDWOOD-PANELED DANCE studio in Berkeley, California, and presented a visitor with a thick ledger. It was an ordinary notebook, the kind that could easily pass for a science or history binder with one significant difference. The ornate graffiti that adorned the cover read: "Dance Ballet Joanna," the way another girl's might say: "Jackie loves John." * "You can look at this if you'd like," the dark-haired, willowy 14-year-old said, blushing slightly, yet serenely confident. The notebook had the feel of a road atlas, but rather than tracking land it traced the routes of Poz-Molesky's daily obsession: En Pointe Dance Company, the fledgling youth ballet troupe that she and her best friend, Annie Rigney, launched last year on the faint suggestion of a friend. * Flipping through the pages, you find a meticulous and detailed archive. In small, earnest handwriting, Poz-Molesky had cataloged most of her dance planning of the past nine months, from lists of dancers' measurements and technical range to costume needs and publicity queries.

"It's my passion," said Poz-Molesky, who functions as the director and primary choreographer for En Pointe. Choreographing and directing, she said, "is what I want to do more than anything."

For Rigney, blonde, small, 14, and Poz-Molesky's physical opposite, dancing is equally central--she says she has to dance and hopes to be a principal ballerina one day. For both, the conviction solidified early. The pair began dressing up and performing impromptu concerts for their families when they were barely out of diapers. But unlike many of their peers, the two young dancers kept the performances going.

Their first ballet, presented when they were in fourth grade, was called Angelina Ballerina. Then last year at their private school, Prospect Sierra School in El Cerrito, California, they gave two full-length concerts before an audience of about 100 people. This year, they returned with two ninety-minute concerts, one before the entire school followed by an evening performance the next day for a house of more than 200. The girls were responsible for every facet of production, from dyeing fabric and designing programs to buying flowers for all the dancers. Meanwhile, they attended their daily ballet classes while keeping up with their academic work. Their parents chauffeured, and occasionally worried.

"Sometimes my parents would see me so stressed out they'd say, `This is so much pressure for you,'" Rigney explained. "And sometimes, I'd go into panic and think, `Oh, my God! If it doesn't work out it rests on us because we're the directors and the choreographers. If it looks bad then it's our fault.' I'd just be so stressed out. Then I'd make a list of everything we'd done. I had a ton of lists to reassure myself! I know Joanna makes a lot of lists, too."

Poz-Molesky's anxiety tended to focus on concrete obstacles. "I was so frustrated at times about costumes, and a bunch of stuff," she said. "But then I thought about it for a minute and said: `Wait! I really love it.' So then I worked harder." She also learned to keep calm and face down difficulties. "With the costumes, I just taught myself to work my problem out, whether it meant adding fabric or cutting some off. When I started sewing the costumes, I wasn't nearly as skilled as I am now--after 150 costumes, including hairpieces!"

Last year, the girls approached William Winston, their school's former middle-school director who now works for the Oakland public schools, and asked for his help. Quickly, he became their guardian angel, clearing away school obstacles so that En Pointe could rehearse during recess and turn its project into an academic elective. "I don't think any other teacher would have let us," Poz-Molesky said. "Lots of the other teachers didn't really understand. I don't know why he let us. I don't know if he just had a feeling or if he knew we were going to be OK."

For Winston, the decision was effortless. His job was to make sure the students got into the designated rehearsal space, then to check up on them in the middle of the class. Otherwise, he left them alone. "Helping the two of them was irresistible. It really placed no burden on me at all," he said. "They were totally self-directed and had a vision not only of the production but of the bigger picture of what it meant for their lives."

FOR MANY ADOLESCENT GIRLS, SOCIAL restrictions and peer pressure to conform limit individual expression. But in some lucky cases that doesn't happen. To Winston what distinguished Poz-Molesky and Rigney from other children their age was how delighted they were with their project. What propelled them, he said, "was the joy of putting on a production," not anxiety or a dire need to achieve. "They showed no strain during the process," he added. "Rather than obsessed or driven, they were inspired."

Corinne Jonas, Poz-Molesky's ballet teacher and director of Berkeley Ballet Theater, said the girls show an amazing maturity. "It takes an exceptionally driven and focused young artist to be able to produce on such a high level and remain down to earth and grounded," she said.

Their concert took place in late April in the school's multipurpose room, a small gymnasium with a basketball floor on which En Pointe danced. The bleachers overflowed with family, friends, and the school community. A student emcee, whose deadpan irony warmed up the audience, announced the dances, complete with such encouraging words as: "I hope you'll find it moving." The works had names like La Muerte, Heaven and Hell, and The Audition--big, emotional themes perfectly at home in the tumultuous teenage period, when crossing the bridge from childhood into adult life can be perilous and lonely. The choreography was crafted from basic ballet steps and billowed with teenage passions. But if En Pointe was aesthetically young, its stage presence was poised and mature.

According to Poz-Molesky's mother, Jean, a theologian and expert on Mayan spirituality, her daughter began to see art as part of social change in the last couple of years. "She started to say to me, `Mom, when you have faith and hope, you can do something creative.' She began to understand dance as a way to express something in life that is deeper."

Some of that depth evolved as En Pointe became a small society involving dozens of students. At the start, Poz-Molesky wrote letters to all the girls at her school who danced and invited them to perform. Nine students took her up on the offer. The corps de ballet was comprised of fifth- to tenth-graders. Some had little formal dance training; others, like the older volunteers from Poz-Molesky's ballet school, Berkeley Ballet Theater, were accomplished young dancers. The group got crucial artistic assistance from friends like Tenaya Kelleher, a classmate who is also a dancer and choreographer, and 14-year-old accompanist William Weindel, who helped with music.

Sets, costumes, programs, lighting, sound, accompaniment--even the bake sale at intermission--were orchestrated or created by En Pointe dancers. Money for fabric and sets was raised by selling company sweatshirts and digitally printed cards with Poz-Molesky's photographs of Guatemala, where her father's family lives. Small donations were made by supporters. For some in the audience it was the first occasion to see their children perform onstage. One student at the school, a boy whose mother died a few years ago, was so soothed by the Mayan-inspired depiction of death and mourning in La Muerte he attended the evening concert to see the piece again. That story, more than any other, convinced Poz-Molesky that she was doing something meaningful.

At last, the concert was over. The audience applauded, then applauded some more. Poz-Molesky dispensed bushels of flowers and made dozens of acknowledgments. With nine months of intense work finished, their middle-school career blazing to an end, Rigney and Poz-Molesky walked offstage, radiant, open, and full of joy. And this, they said, was just the beginning. The girls were planning a summer dance program, and during the coming school year they intend to choreograph and perform as part of Berkeley High School's dance department. En Pointe may not rise again. But Joanna Poz-Molesky and Annie Rigney still plan to soar.

Ann Murphy danced for twenty years before becoming a freelance dance critic in 1989. Her work regularly appears in the Oakland Tribune, the San Francisco Weekly, the East Bay Express, and Dance Magazine.
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Author:Murphy, Ann
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2002
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