Like its major character, Ballethnic Dance Firm’s signature work The Leopard Story is one thing of an enigma.
Close to the top, the Leopard finds himself surrounded by a band of spear-wielding Warriors. He escapes the chase by slipping behind a tree, then springs from hiding and throws himself onto the hunters’ shoulders in what appears to be a determined assault. This results in his seize and expulsion, adopted by a village-wide celebration.
Final Friday, for the primary time in 32 years, Ballethnic Dance Firm enlivened the Alliance Theatre’s major stage with The Leopard Story’s vibrant, multi-textured and life-affirming African music and dance.
However the ending could go away viewers members confused. Through the manufacturing’s first half, the Leopard gained sympathy as he endured shedding his mate, her offspring, his satisfaction — even his will to stay — then fought to get it again. However when villagers celebrated his banishment, it was arduous to not surprise, did the manufacturing’s Act I protagonist change into Act II’s villain? Which hero had been we imagined to root for?
A little bit of context could assist present a solution.
When choreographer Waverly Lucas developed Act II in 1991 and added Act I in 1994, the ballet helped set up the corporate’s id via its distinctive mix of classical ballet with West African dance’s fluid, grounded polyrhythmic strikes.
From at this time’s perspective, The Leopard Story reveals how Lucas and cofounder Nena Gilreath tailored ballet, a European artwork kind, for his or her multicultural and largely African-American neighborhood. In Ballethnic’s tackle dance, theatrical parts are half of a bigger kind that embraces and empowers neighborhood, simply as dance has performed for eons in indigenous cultures in Africa and worldwide.
Range, fairness and inclusion had been on the forefront of Ballethnic’s mission many years earlier than it turned a nationwide pattern, and Ballethnic will likely be acknowledged on the Kennedy Heart this summer season for 32 years of doing this work.
As with American variations of The Nutcracker, and Ballethnic’s personal City Nutcracker set on Atlanta’s Candy Auburn Avenue in the course of the Nineteen Forties, The Leopard Story offers a succession of roles for college kids rising via Ballethnic’s faculty and a possibility for them to carry out alongside professionals. Not like commonplace Nutcracker productions, The Leopard Story incorporates a West African savannah setting that’s doubtlessly extra related to an individual of African ancestry. As a substitute of a sugar-coated fairy kingdom, we’ve a pure ecosystem, a predatory world the place totally different teams of African animals, from gazelles and lions to vultures, hyenas and snakes — their distinct motion qualities including texture to Lucas’ choreography — compete to outlive.
Kat Conley’s new set design created an aura of freshness, with a backdrop of hut roofs and basket motifs woven in earth tones starting from terracotta and coral to sand-beige and teal. Round spiral motifs additionally represented hovering tree branches or swirls overhead that had been each vibrant and welcoming. L. Gerard Reid’s unique rating and stay West African drumming propelled the story of a giant cat’s survival on the savannah and his subsequent encounter with people.
Calvin Gentry, with a taut, muscular physique seemingly made for the title function, embodied the Leopard’s ferocity and slinky grace. At one second, Gentry crouched low, clawed fingers gripping the bottom as he solid a penetrating stare on the viewers, his physique held in silent, alert stress. He shortly sprang right into a collection of daring pirouettes and aerial turns, then leapt simply past the soldiers’ attain.
Karla Tyson performed his mate, who misplaced her cubs to predators after which endured grief, starvation and her personal painful demise the identical manner. Tyson and Gentry made a fearlessly pushed on-stage pair who embodied their feline roles with deep dedication and glowing chemistry.
Tyson was a chameleon performer. After her first character died, she danced a slithery pas de deux as a part of a pair of featured Snakes, then helped lead in Act II as each Priestess and Villager, heightening the celebration with sturdy pointe work, clear traces, an articulate higher physique and a blinding smile.
Dr. Theresa Howard led Act II’s opening libation, inviting viewers members to take part in a conventional blessing of their gathering place, the place liquid is poured as an providing to ancestors. Lucas appeared because the towering, deep-voiced Witch Physician. After a prolonged encounter between Leopard and a strong ensemble of male Warriors, totally different social teams — Elders, Warriors, Village Girls, Priestesses, teenagers and kids — carried out distinct dances in colourful African patterned textiles and ceremonial gown.
It was, at instances, a little bit excessive, maybe recalling Chuck Davis’ large-scale African dance live shows, however with classical ballet blended in. Gilreath, as Priestess, moved on and off pointe to drummers’ propulsive rhythms, her legs firmly pulled up, but cell and grounded as her arms and higher physique articulated rhythms with free-swinging ease.
Dance of the African diaspora is ever-evolving, and a number of the choreography seems dated at this time. College students with various skills appeared alongside sturdy professionals. All of it mirrored Ballethnic’s dedication to its neighborhood, and this manufacturing empowers neighborhood as a lot as many age-old indigenous dance varieties do theirs. As for the story’s ambiguous finish, it speaks to the worth of inclusiveness: even the stealthiest, fiercest and most resourceful of pure loners is not any match for the facility of a village.
Cynthia Bond Perry has lined dance for ArtsATL because the web site was based in 2009. Some of the revered dance writers within the Southeast, she additionally contributes to Dance Journal, Dance Worldwide and The Atlanta Journal-Structure. She has an M.F.A. in narrative media writing from the College of Georgia.