Eliot Feld was riding the subway when the car filled with a bunch of rambunctious kids on a field trip. The year was 1977, and Feld, a prominent choreographer, had an epiphany: not about how to escape, but how he might discover undeveloped dancers among children like those. The next year, he joined with the New York City Department of Education to start a dance training program for public school students, which eventually became a school for grades four to eight: Ballet Tech.
That often-told story was told again on Thursday at the Joyce Theater, which Feld also helped found, with the return of Kids Dance, Ballet Tech’s performance troupe, in a recital for paying audiences (and even critics). It came in Feld’s recorded voice as part of “Eureka!,” a new work by Dionne Figgins, who succeeded him as artistic director last year.
As if riding the subway, the students did a straphanger bounce. They formed a semicircle and took turns showing off in the middle. I wish the musical concept — Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with a beat — had been a little less tired, or the beat actually fresh, but the dancers were having fun.
Better were the two Feld works flanking “Eureka!” In “Hello Fancy” (1992), set to 17th-century compositions by John Playford, and “23 Skidoo” (1994), set to 1920s jazz-inspired ballet music by Bohuslav Martinu, Feld gives the students a chance to show good dance manners without being mannered.
The steps, not too difficult to master, are arranged with an overlapping complexity and interlocking parts that display precision, concentration, training. Whether starting with simple walks or ending with a thrill — one dancer after another joining a circular stream of leaps — these pieces delight.
Feld’s idea is alive, and so is he, though you might guess otherwise from the in memoriam tone of a hagiographic video segment. He is old enough, 79, to have been in both the original 1957 cast of “West Side Story” and the 1961 film, a fact honored on this program with “West Side Story Dance Suite.”
The staging by Jacquelyn Scafidi Allsopp — who also spoke about her experience as one of the first Ballet Tech students — is a very free adaptation of the original Jerome Robbins choreography, and it’s put together a little strangely. But the adolescent energy of the dance at the gym and “Cool” are terrific.
Ballet Tech also trains its students by commissioning new works for them. Of this year’s premieres, John Heginbotham’s “Manhattan Research” has the best music: quirky, early electronica by Raymond Scott. The dance, for the younger students, catches some of Scott’s idiosyncrasy in Egyptian arms and leg slapping.
The other two works, by the faculty members Men Ca and Michael Snipe Jr., are hamstrung by the contemporary pseudo-cinematic clichés of music by Max Richter and Kerry Muzzey. But Ca’s “Guardians” uses the groundedness and geometric tension of Lester Horton technique to make the students look powerful. And both it and Snipe’s driving “Infrastructure” learn from Feld’s example of counterpoint and cascading bodies, displaying the students’ high skill as a group.
The crossing lines near the end of “Infrastructure” make for a rousing closer, but before that comes something much older, excerpts from “Raymonda,” choreographed by Marius Petipa in 1898. As with “West Side Story,” the adaptation is free, but the four couples impress with their classical chops. And at their center is another example to learn from: Raven Barkley of Charlotte Ballet, who started dancing at Ballet Tech and has returned as a grown-up guest artist. Secure in her strong technique, she hasn’t forgotten how to have fun. That’s the Ballet Tech way.
Ballet Tech Kids Dance
Through Sunday at the Joyce Theater; joyce.org.