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Saturday, May 6, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Reaching higher

Seattle Times staff reporter

Some of Seattle's youngest performers belong to one of the area's oldest modern-dance companies.

Their 4-foot bodies reach skyward as they lift their arms and arch their backs, giving away the complexity of choreography only through a light knitting of the brow.

They're rehearsing "Zombie Jamboree" for Kaleidoscope Dance Company's spring concert. This year's show, set for next weekend at Broadway Performance Hall, is also the 25th anniversary bash.

The young kids make up about a dozen of the company's 37 dancers, who range in age from 7 to 15. And they, like their older counterparts, take direction with an ease that belies their age.

Anne Green Gilbert, who founded Kaleidoscope and the Creative Dance Center in 1981, still serves as its artistic director. This type of stamina is very rare, even in the world of dance.

Surrounded by elementary-schoolers, Gilbert speaks with authority. The energy in her voice mirrors the vitality of her movements, as she pushes her arms out to emphasize a point to her dancers.

She's a hands-on leader, involving herself in everything from running rehearsals to vacuuming the studio's carpeted entrance.

Coming up

Kaleidoscope Dance Company 25th Anniversary Spring Concert, 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. next Saturday and 3:30 p.m. May 14. Broadway Performance Hall, 1625 Broadway, Seattle; $12, $8 for seniors and children younger than 16 (206-325-6500 or www.ticketwindowonline.com).

At age 58, how does she keep it up?

"I feed off their energy," Gilbert said. "I don't ever really get old because the children just keep coming through."

But it hasn't been easy.

"Sometimes I'm in tears ... sometimes I tear my hair out," Gilbert said.

Dancers and thinkers

For Gilbert, this job goes beyond choreographing pieces and training dancers. She credits Kaleidoscope's success to her methodology — molding dancers into "self-directed, independent, creative thinkers."

Gilbert, who entered the education arena as a third-grade teacher 30 years ago, has always taught concepts along with dance steps. In 2000, to help stimulate thought through movement, she pioneered the BrainDance, an eight-step process that draws from the motions that babies go through in their first year of development.

Since she founded Kaleidoscope, Gilbert has encouraged the youngsters to choreograph dances. Like many of the company's pieces, about half of professional choreographer Joanne Petroff's "Zombie Jamboree" (1992) was created by Kaleidoscope dancers.

And although she loves to share her passion for dancing and performing, the most important lesson that she teaches is unspoken: People come first.

So she's proud that Kaleidoscope attracts children of different ages. "Between 7 and 15, there's such a developmental range ... and I think there's such value in that for the dancers because they're really a family," Gilbert said.

"Some of these kids are only children, some of them are home-schooled and two of them don't have parents, they live with their grandmother."

The tight-knit relationships have allowed Kaleidoscope dancers to acquire other skills that are unusual for people their age. "Whether they're performing at a school or at Broadway Performance Hall — no adult is backstage taking care of them. I think that this is what's amazing to me."

Putting men in dance is also "something that's special," Gilbert said. Those who come through her doors just keep dancing. "The first boy in the company is off in Germany running two companies." Another is in his first year at the Juilliard School.

Coming full circle

The dancers also sense that there's something unique about Kaleidoscope.

Danielle Payton, who started her own company after dancing with Kaleidoscope, is compiling 25 years of material for the alumni dance.

After greeting each other with hugs and smiles last Friday, about 15 alums sat in a circle. The dancers listened to snippets of music, giggling as they reminisced (they're keeping the lineup a secret from Gilbert).

That these former Kaleidoscope members made it to this rehearsal "just reaffirms that it's touched so many people's lives," Payton said. "They want to do the work. They want to come back and learn the dances. It's so awesome and magical."

Hannah King, a seventh-grader at Lake Washington Girls Middle School, understands the feeling.

"Everyone here knows when to give advice or just give a hug," said the Kaleidoscope dancer. "We really trust each other with our feelings and our movements."

Judy Chia Hui Hsu: 206-464-3315 or jhsu@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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