When the Phoenix-based Nebellen Dance Company brings its cutting-edge blend of ballet, break dancing and martial arts to the Rouse Theatre as part of the Columbia Festival of the Arts, three dozen local teenagers will be part of the show.
"I'm really excited," said Alexandra Schieken, 17, who was awarded a coveted slot in a weeklong high school residency program with Nebellen that will culminate with the teenagers' performing here with the troupe.
Nebellen is one of the headliners of this year's festival, which starts tomorrow night with House of Jazz, a celebration that transforms historic Oakland into a 1940s nightclub full of sax players, guitarists, and rhumba and salsa artists. The 10-day festival ends June 19 with a grand finale showcasing Tango Flamenco, a Spanish dance company in its U.S. premiere.
Now in its 18th year, the festival is well known for bringing famous and emerging artists to Columbia. This year's attractions will include rhythm-and-blues stars the Neville Brothers, the political comedians of the Second City and a troupe known as Imago Theatre, which will masquerade as a menagerie of huge penguins, sloths and frogs.
The festival will continue another tradition, too -- the offering of an assortment of free community events, from literary forums to street-painting demonstrations. For example, the Celtic band Gaelic Storm will perform a free concert at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in Centennial Park, and those who come an hour early can attend a step-dance workshop.
Festival organizers say these community events are part of their mission to help residents experience art firsthand.
"We try to make it accessible to as many people as we can," said Nichole Hickey, the festival's managing director.
In addition to conducting the high school residency program, Nebellen will host three community workshops, for $15 each, in which participants can work on jazz leaps and turns and practice hip-hop moves such as popping and locking. These workshops are designed to welcome self-taught dancers as well as classically trained ones.
"We try to do what's happening today," said Nebellen dancer Ben Howe. "We bring to the stage what kids have been doing in the house, on the street and in the clubs -- make it more of an art form than they realize."
Schieken said she has studied "every type" of dance, from pointe to funk, and has a habit of signing up for dance workshops when the festival comes to town. A couple of years ago, she had the opportunity to mingle with ballet immortal Mikhail Baryshnikov when he came to perform.
She said she is especially looking forward to working with the intensely cool, streetwise Nebellen dancers. "It should be wonderful," she said.
Schieken just graduated from River Hill High School and plans to continue dancing when she goes on to the University of Florida in the fall. She plans to major in business and open a nightclub someday. "Dance is my life," she said.
Howe said that he and his fiancee, classical ballerina and Nebellen co-founder Ellen Rath, are looking forward to working with local teens.
Young people "bring that fierce dance quality -- it's no holds barred," Howe said. "They really get a chance to shine."
Nebellen will perform at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. June 17 at the Rouse Theatre. Tickets range from $10 to $40. For more information about the festival, call 410-715-3089, or visit www.columbiafestival.com.