Interview with Keith Saunders, Ballet Master of Dance Theatre of Harlem

Keith Saunders

by Julie Gervais

Dancepanorama had the opportunity to talk with Keith Saunders, Dance Theatre of Harlem Ballet Master, in advance of the Company’s arrival in Detroit for performances at the Detroit Opera House Feb 1, 2, and 3.

 

DP: It was shortly after the company’s visit to Detroit in 2004 that Dance Theatre of Harlem went on hiatus, suspending operations of the professional performing company. When dancers get injured, and rehabilitate, and then return to work, it’s an exciting time but a dancer is also changed by that process. Does the company feel something like that?

KS: It’s an interesting analogy – yes – we are changed by that process; we are strengthened by that process. There’s a renewal. We feel very much alive and excited to return to the national and international landscape. And the new Dance Theatre of Harlem is not the company of 2004. Almost all of the dancers are new, of course because eight years is almost an entire generation in the life of a ballet company. And there are other differences: one of the biggest being that the size of the company has gone from 44 dancers to 18, now. These dancers have been hand-picked from our second company, the DTH Ensemble, which has been touring nationally since 2009 [and visited Detroit during that time]. Some dancers have also been brought into the company from our national auditions.

DP: How many of your current 18 dancers remain from the pre-hiatus days?

KS: There are a couple of dancers on the current roster who were with us before, including one of our leading dancers, Ashley Murphy, who was an apprentice with DTH in 2004.

Ashley Murphy. Photo (c) Rachel Neville.

And Taurean Green was with us in 2004. He danced with other companies in the intervening years and now he’s back with us.

DP: What changes in repertory have resulted from the decreased size of the Company?

KS: Our Artistic Director, Virginia Johnson, did a very smart thing. Over the last three years, as we worked toward the return of the Company, and we’ve known for a while now that we were planning to go with 18 dancers, Virginia instituted a choreographic development program that she called ‘Harlem DanceWorks 2.0’. She invited choreographers in to develop, working with dancers we hired, new works that would form part of the rep of the new company. We are bringing one of the ballets that came out of this project to Detroit. It’s called ‘Far But Close’. It’s a narrative ballet, a contemporary love story of two people who meet in Harlem. Some of the other ballets we’ll be performing in Detroit have been developed just this season – world premiere ballets specifically for the company, or company premieres. We will be performing Alvin Ailey’s ‘The Lark Ascending’ – the first time any company other than the Ailey company will perform it – and this is the first time it’s being performed on pointe. We’re bringing two Balanchine ballets, his masterwork Agon [which was in Dance Theatre’s rep prior to hiatus], plus a lesser-known work: Glinka Pas de Trois, which dates from the 1950s and is a small gem of a work. We’re also bringing a Donald Byrd ballet called ‘Contested Space’, which was made on our second company last season and has been brought forward. Obviously right now we won’t do Giselle, or Serenade, or Four Temperaments…some of those bigger ballets that were staples of the former company, the size difference means we’re unable to do those now. So what Virginia has done is to develop ballets for this company at this size. We do retain some ballets from our previous repertoire.

‘Return’

‘Return’, by Robert Garland is one of these that we’ll be bringing to Detroit. It’s very popular and set to songs by James Brown and Aretha Franklin.

We’ll also be bringing the world premiere that Robert choreographed for us for this season, called ‘Gloria’ – a full-company ballet set to Francis Poulenc’s Gloria.

‘Gloria’ Photo (c) Matthew Murphy.

It was the first ballet seen when the company returned to the stage in October. We’re also bring the Swan Lake Act 3 Pas de Deux. So it’s a carefully selected balance; there are two complete programs. There are original ballets made on these dancers, there is repertoire from the former company, and there are company premieres. This is the Dance Theatre of the 21st century. We’re interested in continuing to grow and develop our dancers of course, but also interested in exploring the idea of what ballet in the 21st century means.

DP: In a recent interview, Virginia Johnson discussed the ongoing disparity between the diversity in our population and the diversity represented in ballet companies. How does DTH’s original mission fit into the 21st century?

KS: It’s still a necessity for DTH to have this sensibility. We’ve been having the same conversation for as long as I’ve been involved in ballet. I don’t that anyone has ever had a satisfactory answer, but if you look at ballet companies across America, it’s not really that different from what it was years ago; it’s frankly not that diverse. Dance Theatre’s mission to continue to provide opportunities for black dancers remains unchanged, and remains relevant.

DP: The fact that we’re still having this conversation – is it good, in a way? In the sense that, if we’re talking about it, we’re acknowledging that there remains work to be done.

KS: I don’t want to say it’s exactly the same as years ago – there is some more diversity now, but change is slow. There are so many factors that go into it. So yes, perhaps the fact that we’re still talking about it is good, in that we need to continue to make people aware. Particularly people who serve on Boards of Directors and as Artistic Directors, it’s important that they know that there is still an issue of inclusion.

DP: Thank you so much for carving time out of a busy schedule, and we’re looking forward to seeing you next week!

KS: We’re looking forward to being there!

 

 

 

 

 

Meet Addison Toutant – Dance Student and Winner of Two Tickets to Billy Elliot The Musical!

Addison Toutant in the Fisher Theatre, ready for the show!

By a slightly crazy coincidence, the winners of Dancepanorama’s ticket contest for Billy Elliot The Musical at the Fisher Theatre were Heather Toutant and her son, Addison – who is a 13 year old…dance student! He even resembles some of the boys who play Billy, and someone in the lobby at intermission approached him to ask if he in fact is one of the Billys! You can’t make this stuff up! So we had to ask him a few questions…

dp: Where do you study dance, and what kinds of dance do you study? How many classes do you take in the average week?

AT: I take class at The Turning Point School for the Performing Arts in St. Clair Shores …. I have been going there for 7 or 8 years. We just started this week, I think I take 9 classes per week. I take jazz, tap, hip hop, ballet and now this year lyrical.

dp: Had you seen the film version of Billy Elliot, and so did you kind of know the story beforehand?

AT: No, I didn’t but my mother told me a bit about it.

dp: Can you pick out a favorite part of the show, or maybe two?

AT: I’ve got to say my favorite part of the show was the end of the 1st half — the Angry dance. I feel like I could understand what he was going through by the way he expressed himself in that dance … It sorta got to me because the emotions were conveyed very well.

dp: Do you have to deal with people at school or elsewhere who still think that dance is ‘for girls’?

AT: Not so much of that is what I deal with, more so that people don’t think it’s a sport. I guess they don’t think dance has any competitions to it so therefore it’s really not a sport. Little do they know dance has a lot of competitions! I even compete with my dance studio.

dp: It’s just a crazy coincidence that these tickets wound up going to a young boy whose story has some parallels with Billy’s story! Did it feel a little autobiographical to you at times?

AT: Actually yeah — it did!

dp: Anything else you want to say that I didn’t ask?

AT: Next time you see a young man dancing, you can think of the show. We all struggle with our own issues, but there is always somebody behind us — supporting us.

 

Eisenhower Dance Ensemble To Premiere ‘Rite of Spring’, June 16-17 2012

Laurie Eisenhower

SEE BELOW FOR SPECIAL SNEAK PEEK REHEARSAL VIDEO LINK !

by Julie Gervais

The 19th Annual Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival will present two fully staged performances of Igor Stravinsky’s famous ballet, The Rite of Spring, on June 16 & 17. Laurie Eisenhower, Artistic Director of Eisenhower Dance Ensemble, squeezed in a few minutes with Dancepanorama to tell us about it!

dp: You said that this music has been on your mind for a very long time. When did you know that now would be the time to finally choreograph to it, and how long have you been working on it?

LE: I’ve been listening to Stravinsky’s music over the years, since I started choreographing, and this piece is pretty powerful. I was in NY when the Joffrey revived it and learned a lot about it at that time.

Joffrey Ballet/Rite of Spring

They were reviving the original work and I don’t think there’s any film available, but I think Nijinsky’s sister was alive then, and they were working with notes, and trying to reconstruct it. They worked on it for a couple of years. I also saw Pina Bausch’s version, Martha Graham’s, Paul Taylor’s…but I always liked the music and felt like if I took it on at a very young age that people might feel it was a little arrogant. So I decided to wait a bit. It’s a complex piece of music: mixed meter, and then the meter changes all the time. It’s a difficult piece for dancers to count. I spent over forty hours coming up with my own ‘score’, what I call my ‘dancers’ score’, so we had something to work with. But I had always wanted to tackle the piece; I had an idea for it probably ten years ago and was just waiting for things to kind of come together in order to take it on. Of course I wish I had another two or three weeks, now! But there’s never enough time, and I’m excited about what we have.

dp: After spending so much time with this music, can you say why it might be that something so poorly received at first has become so cherished and exalted?

LE: Well, of course it wasn’t just the music that people had a problem with. The dance was very turned in, very radical and against the ballet tradition. And the subject matter was controversial. And the music is very percussive, and rhythmic in a very odd way.

From a reconstruction of Nijinsky's 'Rite'

So you put all those things together, and people started booing, and it just got out of control. So I can understand the history of that. But the music appeals to me because of the driving force that it has, the percussiveness, the wide range of dynamics. I find all those things very exciting, and I like how it’s complex and has so many shadings. Often these days, I think choreographers are picking music that has a regular 4/4 meter, and it’s easy to have only one dynamic in a piece like that. So it’s nice to work with music that has all sorts of dynamics; it helps inspire the choreography. –> SNEAK PEEK! ‘Rite of Spring’ Rehearsal

dp: The piece has a long lineage. There are iconic movements, poses and shapes that are strongly associated with it. Do these resonate with you while you work?

LE: Well, except for the Paul Taylor version, the other versions I’ve seen have all taken on the original scenario, that of the sacrificial virgin.

Pina Bausch Version

I’ve not done that so it’s been easier to stray from the originals. Also, for the last ten years I’ve purposely not been watching any of the original versions. I didn’t want any of their images in my brain. I think that when you watch other dances, sometimes that choreography can come out subconsciously and I try to avoid that as much as I can.

dp: You have chosen to forge your own path with the storyline, forgoing the tale of maiden ritual sacrifice and instead using a theme of human discovery and innovation. Can you say what led you to this? Were there specific images that the music conjured, and do you depict any of these ideas in a literal way on the stage?

LE: Well, I actually choreographed a dance in 1999 called ‘Rites and Passages’. Many years before that, a choreography teacher had told me that you couldn’t choreograph a dance about the history of the world. And I thought, ‘Well why not?’ So, I did! But I was a younger choreographer at that time, and I liked the concept but later on, felt like I didn’t completely realize it, and I always wanted to go back to it. And then, listening to the ‘Rite of Spring’ music, I thought that I could merge that idea with this music. So it all made sense to evolve those ideas through this music.

dp: And do you think that the teacher was saying that it’s just too broad of a concept?

LE: Yes, and I understood what she was saying, but I think how you approach things is what matters. In a way, I am dealing with the whole history of the world but specifically, with the idea of change – things have transformed our society and how conflicts arise with change.

dp: How many dancers are you working with, and is there more solo/partnering work or more corps work or is it kind of a balance?

LE: There are 10 dancers, and they are mostly working as one tribe. There are some solos and duets. Originally I had wanted 20 dancers but I decided to narrow it down and I’m glad I did. The 10 dancers really fill up the stage and 20 would have been crowded, so I think it worked out well. And we have a set design, and there’s all sorts of props, so there logistical craziness but I think it will be exciting when it all comes together.

dp: Can you name just a few of the things you are most excited about, for this premiere, maybe things that you want to tell the audience to look out for?

LE: Well, for one the music is going to be really incredible. The Pridonoffs, Elisabeth and Eugene, are going to be performing the music with some percussionists, and that will be amazing. I have so many collaborators on this project and I’d like the audience to notice their work too – costumes designed by Monika Essen and executed by Shari Bennett. My lighting designer is Kerro Knox 3 and set design is by Jeremy Barnett. In terms of the choreography, I like the work to speak for itself. I know some people tend to focus on the technique of the dancers, others on the figuring out the story. This is being performed at the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, so a lot of the audience will be chamber music fans. Overall, I’m just excited for that moment when an audience sees a piece for the first time. It’s one of the thrills of being a choreographer!
Tickets to see The Rite of Spring on Saturday, June 16 at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday, June 17 at 7:30 p.m. at Seligman Performing Arts Center are $40 and $10 for students (25 and under). Tickets are $5 more at the door. Subscription packages are available. For more information, call 248-559-2095 or visit www.greatlakeschambermusic.org.

Spotlight On: Katherine Alexander

By: Debra Schreiber/Pittsburgh

From prima ballerina to founder of Exhalations Dance Theatre, Katherine Alexander has come a long way.

Katherine Alexander during Exhalations' "Expressions"/Photo Credit Debra Schreiber.

When the 21-year-old pharmacy student began ballet she stuck to it. “I was a very strict ballerina in high school,” Alexander said. She would practice between 24 to 26 hours per week.

When she began to look at colleges, Point Park University was definitely in mind; but Alexander chose Duquesne University for pharmacy. There was a dance team at Duquesne, but no dance theatre, so Alexander began Exhalations Dance Theatre.

Exhalations broke the ballerina from her mold. “I never thought as a strict ballerina I would be performing some of the things I’m performing,” Alexander said. She has now added contemporary, modern, Fosse jazz, tap, ballroom and hip-hop to her repertoire. She described the experience as, “Oh my gosh, I’m wearing foot thongs.” She has also studied Martha Graham contemporary, as well as Greek, Ukrainian and Bulgarian folk dancing.

Alexander, front, with Brandi Salter, during an Exhalations' modern number/Photo Credit Debra Schreiber.

Alexander also dances with the Junior Tamburitzans, focusing on Croatian dance and music, and plays an instrument called the brač, which belongs to the tambura family. The instrument is, “like a little guitar that sounds like a mandolin,” Alexander described. She enjoys performing with the Tamburitzans for, “celebration, carrying on traditions,” she said.

Alexander performing "Expressions"/Photo Credit Debra Schreiber

“Anytime I am on stage…that is happiness for me,” she said of her dancing, choreography and teaching.

Alexander taught and choreographed Exhalations' beginngers class for "Expressions"/Photo Credit Debra Schreiber.

Alexander has been fortunate, with no serious injuries holding her back from what she loves. However, she does have to be careful to avoid dislocations, as her extreme flexibility can sometimes cause them.

When asked if she had any regrets about not attending Point Park, her answer was no. Alexander is, “excited about being a pharmacist, and would not have been able to start Exhalations,” had things gone differently. She is grateful to her family, who has given her great support with her Exhalations venture. Her mother supplies costumes and food for the shows, and her aunt and brother help out as well.

Alexander also performs with Spotlight Musical Theatre Company and Encore Show Choir, and belongs to KE and ASP.

11 Questions: Angel Corella, Artistic Director/Barcelona Ballet and Principal Dancer, American Ballet Theatre

by Julie Gervais

Angel Corella

Dancepanorama had the exciting opportunity to interview Angel Corella while his company, Barcelona Ballet, was spending an extra week in Detroit following their performances at the Detroit Opera House. Listen below as he discusses his transition to full-time Director, his Company’s work, and his outlook on ballet and its place in our contemporary culture.

dp: This a very special time for you. You have made an announcement that you will retire from American Ballet Theatre as Principal Dancer, this June. Was it a tough decision?

Will you continue to appear with your company?

Your Company has just recently made a new home in Barcelona. What is the significance of this move?

Teaching Class

You just mentioned, and have spoken before about, your desire for the company not to be known as ‘Angel Corella’s Company’. What do you want the Company to be known for?

And, all of this rapid growth despite the fact that you launched the company just as the world was falling to its knees in financial crisis, and there are still many unresolved global finance problems. Did you ever question whether it would be better to wait until the economy improved?

A Fantastical Depiction of Swan Lake

You have the rare perspective of someone who has danced a rich variety of top-shelf repertoire, on big stages around the world. What trends do you see in ballet repertoire, and what differences do you see among countries and even regions, such as the American coasts vs. the heartland areas?

Speaking of audience development, it’s great that you have such a clear vision. Because everyone is looking for the answer to the question: how do you get people out of their living rooms and into the theatre?

You have dancers from all over the world, but the majority are from Spain. Is there a special quality – a Spanish energy – that you are excited to show to the world?

How have audiences been responding, as you’ve been touring around?

The television dance show explosion: do you feel like it’s a positive thing?

Finally, what else – because this question is what dancepanorama is all about too – what else can we do to get people more interested in dance?

 

(c) Rosalie O'Connor

A Pittsburgh Pointe Mystery

By: Debra Schreiber/Pittsburgh

Steel is what shaped the early culture of the Pittsburgh area. The Carrie Furnace is a piece of that heritage still standing. It has now also become a part of Pittsburgh’s art history.

Ron Baraff, Director of Museum Collections & Archives at Rivers of Steel, gives tours of the Carrie Furnace and can authorize use of the site. Oftentimes, he said in a telephone interview, people decided to visit the site on their own.

Mysterious pointe shoes at the Carrie Furnace - where did they come from?/Photo Credit Debra Schreiber

While at the Carrie Furnace one day last spring, Baraff noticed a pair of pointe shoes hanging down by the now infamous deer sculpture, “Deer Head” which was made from material found at the Carrie Furnace. The shoes were a mystery to him.

“I was like what are these doing here?” Baraff explained. It is now assumed the shoes were left behind by a dancer who had done a video shoot on site.

But then came a second pair.

Maria Caruso, founder and director of Bodiography Contemporary Ballet, did a photo shoot at the Carrie Furnace for the dance production of “Eyes Wide Open.” The idea behind the production was to parallel science and movement. The show took the audience through four seasons, each season showing three photographs. The Carrie Furnace photos were used at the end of the piece.

 

Photo by Eric Rose of Mysterion Studios

 

Other photos of the dancers at the Carrie Furnace were used as PR for the performance, and showed, “the dancer come alive there [at the Carrie Furnace],” said Caruso in a telephone interview.

Caruso is a Pittsburgh native. Her family were coalminers. She described the Carrie Furnace as, “so well preserved. It really comes to life.” She liked the idea of shooting there and appreciated the richness of history contained at the site.

Photo by Eric Rose of Mysterion Studios

The first pair of pointe shoes was gone when they came back to the site, she said.

Before Caruso left the site she told Baraff that she had left a present for him. When he asked her what it was, she replied, “You’ll see.” It was the second pair.

“It took me a couple of days to realize they were there,” Baraff said.

When asked why she left the pointe shoes there, Caruso explained that at the Carrie Furnace, “You can find articles of the past. It’s so cool to see how the artist did the deer. Everyone who goes there has an opportunity to leave a mark.” The pointe shoes, and a pair of high heels she wore, were hers.

“It’s great to be a part of the Pittsburgh cultural language,” Caruso said.

Photo by Eric Rose of Mysterion Studios

Anyone interested in visiting the Carrie Furnace, part of the former U.S. Steel’s Homestead Works,  where, according to Rivers of Steel, “at one time, the furnaces and the steelworkers who labored in them produced more than 1,000 tons of iron a day,” should contact Rivers of Steel at (412)-464-4020 or info@riversofsteel.com.  Tourists will learn about the steel-making process, walk through the well-maintained furnace, and view the “Deer Head” and maybe even the point shoes.

Anyone interested in Bodiography, a contemporary ballet company that brings movements to life through pointe, should contact the studio at (412)-521-6094 or info@bodiographycbc.com.

Exhalations a Home for Dance at Duquesne University

By: Debra Schreiber/Pittsburgh

No dance? No problem.

When Katherine Alexander, 21, came to Duquesne University, there was no dance theatre, only a dance team. As she moves on to her fifth year in pharmacy school, that is no longer the case.

Alexander founded Exhalations Dance Theatre in 2010. She served as its president until this year and is now the treasurer of this unique dance group.

“When I got to Duquesne, there was no dance besides the dance team,” Alexander said. “I missed it so much, I needed to do something.” She wanted to create a dance theatre, “for people who danced in high school and wanted to keep dancing.”

It is also a place for people who want to discover dance. Beginners are welcome. So are boys.

Dancers rehearse for Exhalations' spring showcase: "Expressions"/Photo Credit Debra Schreiber

Exhalations has become a huge movement on Duquesne’s campus. When Alexander held auditions for Exhalations in 2010, 70 people showed up. Now over 100 people show up to the auditions. “The first semester I was expecting 10 people, maybe 20,” Alexander said.  “It’s already so much bigger than I thought it would be…it kind of just grew around me.”

Perfecting a lift while rehearsing for "Expressions"/Photo Credit Debra Schreiber

The theatre also welcomes all styles of dance, though modern is the main focus. The students have practiced acro, taught by Sam Potter, tap, taught by Carly Fuller, hip-hop, taught by Kayla Sparkman, ballroom and baton as well. The styles vary by semester, depending on who is available, “as long as we have someone willing to teach,” Alexander said.

Tap dancers in rehearsal for "Expressions"/Photo Credit Debra Schreiber

And not everyone has to perform. Students are welcome to come in and warm up with the dancers and leave before the showcase choreography begins. The students are divided into beginner, instructed by Alexander, intermediate, instructed by Brandi Salter, advanced, instructed by Victoria Messino, and company classes, instructed by Lea Fosbenner, who is the current Exhalations president.

Choreographer Victoria Messino works with dancers on their movements for "Expressions"/ Photo Credit Debra Schreiber

The group performs fall and spring showcases and has also performed at the University of Pittsburgh as part of the Choreography Project. “I had a really rewarding experience after the first show,” Alexander said. “A girl’s mom thought her daughter would never dance again,” but the girl discovered Exhalations and was able to revive her dance life.

For their showcases the group has performed a modern version of “The Nutcracker,” which was a, “crazy version; nothing classic” Alexander said, for which the group developed much of the music; “Radio Hits,” which included “a lot of Adele,” Alexander said; and this spring, “Expressions.” The group also visited Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh in 2010 to perform for the kids.

When asked about the name Exhalations, Alexander said it was something she never thought about. “In my mind, it worked,” she said, explaining the exhale as something you give off, which, in the case of the dancer, is choreography.

Although she will be leaving Exhalations soon, Alexander hopes that the dance group will, “continue being open to different styles of dance…and dancers.”

Vince Paul, Artistic Director of Detroit’s Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts, on the Upcoming Presentation of FELA!

Recently, dancepanorama sat down to talk with Mr. Paul in the midst of whirlwind preparations for the Music Hall’s hosting of ‘Fela!’ It’s a three-week residency for this Tony Award winning Broadway hit, and preparations have been under way for well over a year. Producers are Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith. How does such a big project get rolling, and just how much energy and enthusiasm has to be generated to ensure its success?

Compiled by Julie Gervais

On Bringing FELA! To Detroit

In my life journey, I did a lot of African shows. I was the production stage manager for a show called Africa Oye, and it really was the first authentic collection of African artists that toured throughout the U.S. In our travels, Fela Kuti’s music was played on the bus everyday. Everyone in Africa knows Fela; he’s a household name. Fast forward twenty years later, and someone does a musical based on his life. And I went to see the show, and I was just stunned. I was inspired, riveted…part of it is the super high energy and the incredible quality of the dancing. It seems hard to believe they’re going to do it again the next night, the energy level is so high. It started off as a dance project, and of course Bill T. Jones is an American master. It was like a full-length ballet set to Fela’s music, and so well crafted.

But then all this other stuff started to come into view, posing questions of social fairness, corruption, and it was about Lagos (Nigeria), yet it could have been about Detroit. The similarity of the issues is extraordinary. And that’s when it hit me…Detroit needs to see this. And I need to move heaven and earth, because it is a healing experience to see it. Suddenly, our issues are put into context: we’re not alone on earth with these issues. And if it helps us to focus on the causes of our issues, it’s the first step toward fixing them. But it’s packaged in such a fast moving, happy way. It puts ideas in your head, and they stay there, but he moves right on. And a week later you’re thinking – “wow is that what he said!?” That’s the sign of a great masterwork – that it resonates for weeks, months. I’ll never forget it as long as I live.

The Music Hall’s Educational Mission and History, in the Context of Detroit’s Very Rich Cultural Mix

It really was a very heavy decision to bring the show. It’s very expensive; it’s a multi-million dollar project. And we’re running it for three weeks! Ok, if we ran it for a week, it would probably sell out, and it would be a great experience. But unless we engaged it for a longer run, it wouldn’t fulfill our mission: to augment education in Southeast Michigan. It’s our number one mission as a non-profit: to teach.

The performing arts as a teaching guide, or as a medium, for education – this is really one of the best tools we have. Who hasn’t been influenced by a song, a movie? Especially if you’re introducing people to whole new ideas; to entire cultures. We have so many cultures here, and our programming reflects that. When you come to see at show at Music Hall, it’s a show, but it’s also about exposure to cultures and ideas that may not be your own.

People from all over the world have put down deep roots here, and that has resulted in an incredibly high level of cultural output coming out of this area throughout our history. Metro Detroit has produced more artists of world renown than anywhere on earth! It’s because of the evolution that happens when ideas and cultures coexist and evolve by learning from each other.

This building has always been about diversity. Matilda Dodge Wilson built this theatre in 1928 and it became the first performing arts center of its caliber to offer open access to all people. She was a pioneer in so many ways, and we follow her mission to this day. It’s a terrific reflection of Detroit’s history.

So, many months ago, we started by creating a 30-foot exhibit that shows the timeline of Fela’s life, and students can get to know about him.

FELA! Study Guide Section

The exhibit has traveled throughout Detroit metro… Cranbrook, the Detroit Public Library, DTE, Cass Tech, Roper…and when the show leaves Detroit, the exhibit will travel with the tour. The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History has built an entire static exhibit in one of their galleries and it runs for six months. We have a high school assembly program that we take out; it includes an introduction with a screen and narrator, then there’s some African dancers, and we talk about Afrobeat (Fela is considered the father of Afrobeat music), and we play the kids some James Brown drum rhythms, some Tupac rhythms, then we give them a scratchy recording from 1950 and everyone says “Oh! So that’s where they got that!” Because once they understand how music evolves, then they can participate in evolving it. And then they further the tradition of Metro Detroit’s cultural fertility; they take it out into the world.

Scale and Scope

This is, as far as I can tell, the largest initiative Music Hall has undertaken – ever – for a show. I hope we have created a template for future projects. Of course we always need to have a rich mix of programming, but if there were ever again a show that moves us like this, and with which we’re able to satisfy so many considerations, we’d do this again.

Fela’s Humanity and Complexity

The educational programming goes above and beyond what can be covered in an evening’s performance. The show covers a lot of territory, though. This a man with faults, but it’s a real story. We should beware the hero that is too pure. Of course heavy issues are toned down when working with younger kids, but I don’t think Bill T. Jones shies away from them. It’s honest. I think older students really appreciate that we’re not trying to cover anything up, it adds credibility. Kids are smart!

The Master Classes

The dancers are booking master classes throughout the area. (See dancepanorama calendar for this contact info!) I think the surprise will be the level of technique they bring. Being Bill T. Jones’ dancers, they are of course all highly trained and accomplished in ballet, modern and jazz before they even begin to study his movement, and that’s a deep study. It includes the western African dance forms and he is a master of those. The way he brings all of these influences together, the choreography and level of the dancing in this show – will leave you breathless. And it’s hard to sit still in your seat!

Building a Community Team

Detroit has a very rich history, and is complicated. It’s important that we learn to harness our collective power; it’s what will carry us forward. For this show, we have gathered so many organizations and demographics, and we’re all working together to support this show as a community. There are cultural and civic groups, educational institutions, professional societies, chambers of commerce, museums, galleries, libraries, real estate interests, other arts presenters, and of course the media…a very long and diverse list. The Opening Night Gala on Valentine’s Day will be incredible; there will be a day devoted to fundraising for the Jalen Rose Academy and we’ll do a Fab Five theme on February 19…I like to make these crossover connections and they are very important. The show is more than just a show, it’s a unity project. You will see representation from throughout the Metro area. It doesn’t happen fast, but in twenty years, this city is going to be a different place, if we keep working together like this! Not doing so would be the only thing that prevents us from becoming, once again, the Paris of the Midwest.

Patricia Zhou of Canton, MI to Perform in ‘Stars of Russian Ballet Gala’

Patricia Zhou was born in Canada but raised in Canton, MI. She left home at age 13 to attend the renowned Kirov Academy in Washington, D.C., beginning her serious ballet training so late, by ballet’s timetable, as to put a professional career out of reach to all but the most gifted of dancers. The swiftness of her progress is a testament to what can be achieved when extreme talent is met by unrelenting hard work. She has amassed a startling collection of awards in international ballet competitions, including at the Prix de Lausanne in 2011, the 2010 Beijing International Ballet Festival, and the Youth America Grand Prix. She has been featured in the national dance publications Pointe and DanceSpirit, and made her national television debut in May on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars. She begins her professional career in the fall as an apprentice, with the title of Prix de Lausanne dancer, in London’s Royal Ballet. She will perform in Saturday’s Ann Arbor Gala in the Act II adagio from Swan Lake, a variation in the Don Q suite, and in one of the Odalisque variations from Le Corsaire.

 

dp: What was your dance training prior to leaving MI?

PZ: I started dancing when I was seven, very recreationally. I did tap/ballet combo, and slowly over the years i started doing jazz, lyrical, acro, etc. I competed as a lyrical dancer for a few years before I started really getting serious about dancing at 13, and considering a professional career in ballet.

 

dp: Then…

PZ: I then was introduced to the Kirov Academy. Knowing nothing about ballet, I just decided to audition and see if I could even get in. To my surprise, I got in with a 50% scholarship half-way through the audition. I decided as soon as I got out of the audition that I wanted to go there and study.

dp: What was it like there, both at first and once you got used to it?

PZ: At first, I was so in awe. All of the students were so proper and poised-very different than the teenagers I was used to seeing. I soon got used to the environment, and I feel it was a very good place to grow up. In ballet, I was always so nervous. I was in the lowest group, with all of the youngest students. I still had very little experience and it took me a while to learn all of the terms and pick up the combinations. After a few months, I was moved up a level, and I started to slowly get it more and more.

dp: How old were you when you made the decision to be a dancer? I mean, I know a lot of little girls get that idea, but mostly it fades away, while those that are serious eventually make an “informed” decision, i.e. when you really understood how much work it is and how tough the odds are.

PZ: I was 13 when I realized that I actually liked dancing and want to pursue a professional career. It was very surprising for my parents-even for me. It kind of came out of nowhere!! I didn’t really understand how competitive it was and how much hard work it took until quite recently when I got to work with and compete against dancers my own age from all over the world. Seeing what others have accomplished made me realize what I wanted, and needed, to accomplish in order to make it.

dp: Was the idea of leaving school and entering the professional world a bit scary at first?

PZ: Yes it was definitely very scary for me. I am still transitioning because working is definitely very different than studying. Most of the dancers have been with the company for a while so I am still trying to find my place in the company. I was very worried about not having a teacher hovering over my every move, making sure it was done correctly, but after a few days with the company, I am finding class very enjoyable, and I feel like my technique is still improving because now I am learning from watching the other dancers around me.

dp: How many dancers are in the Royal Ballet, and can you pick something that most exciting about being there?

PZ: There are about 90 dancers….[most exciting] dancing and working with such famous, world-class dancers, working at the Royal Opera House… It is so beautiful and grand!!

dp: Did you both know that you’d likely end up working outside the U.S.? And do you feel that the companies have kind of an international feel, so being a “foreigner” isn’t too big of a deal, or are there any issues that go with this?

PZ: I always wanted to dance in Europe. I feel like the dancers are treated better and more respected. I also like the repertoire of the European companies more, and they tend to do more full-length ballets. There are also dancers from all over the world, so I think it is more accepting to different cultures.

dp: . You’rejust starting out, and I know dancers are modest, so I’ll ask about short-term goals rather than long-term. What would you like to accomplish over the next couple of years? Do you have some dream roles you’d like to learn?

PZ: I would love to dance special parts and soloist roles. That would be amazing, especially performing at the beautiful Royal Opera House alongside such incredible dancers. I would love to dance “Giselle” and “Romeo and Juliet” someday as well as Forsythe’s “In the Middle Somewhat Elevated”. I would also enjoy learning Balanchine repertoire and working on new contemporary works.

dp: What is the most fun thing, or your favorite thing, you’ve done so far as a dancer?

PZ: My favorite thing about being a dancer is when you go on stage and just forget everything and dance. It has only truly happened a few times, but it feels incredible: like your body is dancing on its own, and all you have to do is enjoy the feeling of being onstage.

dp: Is there something you’d like to say to a young student who may be considering the same path?

PZ: My only advice is to work hard and never give up. If your mind is truly set on becoming a dancer, it’s necessary to understand that it will be incredibly difficult-physically, but even more so mentally. Dancing can be very discouraging and at times it may look hopeless, but those are the times you have to keep pushing yourself and just believe that you can achieve anything you’ve set your mind upon.

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Haley Schwan of Howell, MI to Perform in ‘Stars of Russian Ballet’ Gala

Haley Schwan is from Howell, MI and became a member of the Corps de Ballet, Staatsballet Berlin in 2010. On her way to Berlin, she spent two years as a full-time student at the legendary Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg, Russia. Founded in 1738, the Academy and the training method that bears its name have given to the dance world most of its superstars. To say it is extremely selective is an understatement. Among the thousands of children that audition for a place in the beginning class, approximately 60 are selected each year. Only recently have they begun to admit a few foreign students. Look for Haley on Saturday night in a variation from Don Quixote, and in the contemporary work ‘Come Neve al Sole’, choreographed by Rolando d’Alesio, which she will dance with Ludovico Pace.

 

dp: Where did you study dance prior to leaving MI?

HS: I studied primarily at Glenn’s School of Dance in Howell, Michigan. And actually, ballet was my least favorite class until Sergey [Rayevskiy, of the Academy of Russian Classical Ballet in Novi, MI] started teaching classes at Glenn’s.

dp: Then where did you go?

HS: Looking for a way to improve my technique for jazz, I went to a summer program at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C. and after about a week into the intensive I fell in love with ballet. The following September (2004) I began my first year [there as a full-time student], and I stayed until 2008. In September 2008, I went to St. Petersburg, Russia to study at the Vaganova Ballet Academy. After studying there for two years, I graduated and moved on to work for Staatsballet Berlin in August 2010.

dp:What was it like there, both at first and once you got used to it?

HS: The Kirov Academy became a second home to me over the four years I was there. I was quite an outgoing kid, so leaving home at 12 years old, I’m not sure I fully understood what a big step I was really taking, it was more like an adventure. But by the end of my time there, the people of the staff were like aunts and uncles, classmates like brothers and sisters. Moving to Russia was a huge shock at first, it was definitely the most challenging experience I’ve ever had. But I grew up a LOT as a person and as a dancer from going through it – In such a situation you can realistically fathom how important dance is to you. When you’re living unbelievably far away from home, almost no one speaks English, and you’re being yelled at and worked to the bone everyday…. You’ve got to either love dance or be a masochist. And so there is where i really understood how much I want this, and luckily I was in the absolute best place to nurture that. Not being able to understand the people or the culture was something that obviously took time, but I would say that by the beginning of my second year I was comfortable there.

dp: How old were you when you made the decision to be a dancer? A lot of little girls get that idea, but mostly it fades away, while those that are serious eventually make an “informed” decision, when you really understood how much work it is and how tough the odds are.

HS: I kind of got ahead of myself in the previous question about this, but I would say I was 16 – when I moved to Russia. It was there that I really saw how much goes into succeeding in the dance world. I’ve always been quite a hard worker in class, but there are so many things that you need to do outside of the studio to keep your body in shape. It really is a full time job.

dp: Was the idea of leaving school and entering the professional world a bit scary at first? HS: At first, yes it was scary….but I was more scared before I started to audition places. I didn’t feel ready to begin working and there were still a lot of things I wanted to work on before becoming a professional. But then I went to my first audition, in Berlin (which was actually a company that I had wanted to go to), and they offered me a contract. From that day on, I was honestly just really excited to start working and have more time on stage, which is what I’d been working for! :)

dp:How big is SB, and can you pick something that is most exciting about being there:

HS: About 90 people. I am not sure what the most exciting thing is….but I love working with choreographers on a new creation. You have long days in the studio just trying different movements and piecing them together until you’re dead – then you come back the next day and keep going! Starting from raw movements and watching as it all comes together bit by bit is exciting, it’s like you also grow with the piece and your name will always be there as the original cast. Kinda cool :) I also love just being on stage. In school you were always working for months and months at a time for one weekend of performances twice a year. It was just never enough! The thrill of being able to perform so often keeps me on my toes (literally) and excited to come to work the next day.

dp:Did you know that you’d likely end up working outside the U.S.? And do you feel that the companies have kind of an international feel, so being a “foreigner” isn’t too big of a deal, or are there any issues that go with this?

HS: Honestly, I have always wanted to end up in Europe. I find that ballet is much more appreciated outside of the U.S., and the repertoire tends to be a bit more my style. I have also always found Europe more appealing as a place to live because it’s so inspiring and charming. There is a different feel to ballet when it’s in an original opera house, or when you walk on your way to work you see beautiful historical architecture. There is so much to learn from other forms of art and Europe is just like a walking museum. In the company I don’t feel like a foreigner at all because there are actually only 3 or 4 Germans! Even though we are in Germany, all the classes and rehearsals are given in English, but of course outside of the studio some people tend to hang out with other people who speak their native language. But I don’t mind because it’s a good opportunity for me to keep up with my Russian and learn other new languages!

dp: You’re just starting out, and I know dancers are modest, so I’ll ask about short-term goals rather than long-term: what would you like to accomplish over the next couple of years? Are there some dream roles you’d like to learn?

HS: I would have to say that some of my short term goals would be for this next season to be able to dance the roles that I was given the opportunity to rehearse last season, but didn’t dance. This includes things like 11 couples in Caravaggio (Mauro Bigonzetti), 4 friends in La Esmeralda, etc. Other than that, I would just say that my goals would be to keep working and improving my technique and hope that brings some exciting roles to work for! As far as dream roles…I would say Tatjana from Onegin (John Cranko), Juliet from Romeo and Juliet, death in Le Jeune Homme et La Mort (Roland Petit) and be able to work with choreographers such as Jiří Kylián and William Forsythe.

dp: What is the most fun thing, or your favorite thing, you’ve done so far as a dancer?

HS: I think that as a dancer you have a lot of opportunities to have a good time. Of course work is work, but when you are at work surrounded by people like you everyday, things can be really fun. Everyone always says that dancers are really their own kind of people – we’re artsy people and so on stage there almost always seems to be a little joke or even a change of your character that keeps things entertaining. But one thing that no one can ever take away from me, are the moments I had on the Mariinsky stage. Having the opportunity to dance on such a historical stage was exhilarating and gave me this amazing feeling of success.

dp: Is there something you’d like to say to a young student who may be considering the same path?
HS: Work until you feel like there is nothing more you could possibly do, but make time in your day to relax and take care of yourself – there has to be a balance in your body. Always be respectful and listen to your teachers, but don’t ever let someone discourage you – If you want something, nothing should be able to get in your way.

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