February 13, 2007

Lambarena Project gets down to earth: Louisville Ballet combines ballet and African dance on stage and in schools

Portia White Muhammad: leads a group of students at Camp Taylor Elementary School in African dance moves during a class that is part of the Louisville Ballet’s educational initiative, the Lambarena Project.In a bright white and cavernous rehearsal hall at the Louisville Ballet’s East Main Street home one cold January night, an audience of about 50 people, including board members and other considerable financial donors and their guests, sat in chairs arranged along the walls for a rehearsal for “Lambarena” — a dance piece fusing compositions by Bach and ballet movements with the drumming rhythms of African music and the low, swaying motions of West African dance.Soon, the company dancers entered, a unique music rang out from the speakers and “Lambarena” choreographer Val Caniparoli and his collaborators, African dance experts Zakarya Sao Diouf and Naomi Gedo Johnson-Washington, directed the dancers.Caniparoli, Diouf and Johnson-Washington carefully observed the dancers’ every move. Company members had been learning this piece since returning to work from time off after a long run of the seasonal “Nutcracker.” But this music — with its high-pitched and precise melodies blending with the hypnotic yet energizing drumming — was no Tchaikovsky. And the moves required dancers to sometimes jump on their point shoes and other times rotate their hips in ways not defined, nor danced, in the traditional vocabulary of ballet.A fifth grader at Camp Taylor Elementary School executes a dramatic jeté.“It’s not jumping up. It’s jumping to come down,” Caniparoli called out one of the several times he stopped dancers to help them clarify their movements and their timing. During these moments, he and his collaborators often stressed how movements in West African dance are signs of reverence for the Earth. They instructed them to dance lower to the ground, to move their spines and their hips. Such movements were foreign to most of these classically trained dancers.Taking it to the schoolsWhile this weekend’s opening of “Lambarena” (as part of the “Uncharted Realms” program) was still more than two weeks away, it was a proud moment for Bruce Simpson. On the sidelines, the Louisville Ballet artistic director often smiled as he watched the dancers.Since coming to the Louisville Ballet in 2002, Simpson had wanted to stage the piece in Kentucky. In 1999, Caniparoli helped Simpson’s former company, South Africa’s State Theatre, put on the piece in Pretoria. It was just four years after the San Francisco Ballet, Caniparoli’s former company, had premiered the piece.Before the Louisville Ballet’s evening rehearsal began, Simpson explained why it had taken five years to realize his ambition. Simpson not only wanted to stage “Lambarena,” he wanted create a community experience around the dance work — a task requiring a strong educational director. Muhammad helps: a fifth grade student at Camp Taylor stand correctly in one of the ballet positions he has been learning about through the Lambarena Project.In the summer of 2005, Simpson got his wish when the ballet hired Portia White Muhammad. Muhammad had trained as a dancer with the Louisville Ballet Civic Company beginning in 1976 and performed in productions until 1980. From 1994 to 2005, she worked in the Kentucky Center’s education department, including a stint as the director of its ArtsReach program. Now, as the company’s director of education, she would oversee what became the Lambarena Project and enable the company to, in Simpson’s words, “take it to the schools.”And take it to the schools they did. Since September, Muhammad has been leading other educators and a small group — including dancers, musicians and one visual artist — in the Lambarena Project. (In addition to directing the Lambarena Project, Muhammad teaches dance classes at Shelby and Lincoln elementary schools and the Louisville Ballet School.) In the project, the team of artists has been presenting a series of eight sessions to mostly fourth and some fifth grade classes at 18 elementary schools throughout the Jefferson County Public School system. All of the participating students attend schools that receive Title I funds from the federal government because many of the attending students live in high poverty areas.The educators and artists use “Lambarena” as a lens through which students study the cultures of West Africa and of 17th century Europe and music, dance and visual art. They learn about baroque music, about traditional West African drumming and about design and textiles. In the process, the students learn world geography and history. A new vocabularyOn a Tuesday morning, the week before “Lambarena” was set to open, Muhammad reviewed some of the basic moves of ballet and African dance in three back-to-back classes of fourth and fifth grade students at Camp Taylor Elementary School. They were their last classes together.“Everyone spread out and face the board,” Muhammad shouted to the first class, her voice echoing in the school’s small gymnasium.From there she led the students in a series of African moves in which the students each isolated a body part and moved it to the polyrhythmic beats sounding from a CD playing on the nearby boom box. They started with the head, then moved to the shoulders and later to the hips.“Don’t be hip shy. Don’t be shy with those hips,” Muhammad called out to the students. They began to smile and loosen up.[img_assist|nid=3944|title=“Lambarena”|desc=Photo courtesy of Victor Simon/Warren Lynch and Associates Helen Daigle, a soloist with the Louisville Ballet, will perform in this week’s production of “Lambarena.”|link=|align=right|width=147|height=200]Later, they moved to the melodies of Bach, turning out their feet and placing them in the first, second, third, fourth and fifth positions of ballet. They performed pliés and later ran across they gym floor to execute jetés. In between dance moves, the students reviewed some vocabulary they have learned: France, Manjani (a dance with West African origins), allegro, Kente cloth, port de bras and Mali.At the end of their sessions, they offered their own words to sum up their experiences with the Lambarena Project: great, fun, weird, boring, energetic and tired.This Thursday and Friday, all the students who participated in the Lambarena Project will finally see the Louisville Ballet perform the dance.Let’s get logisticalRealizing the project took long-term planning and effort. Just a week after Muhammad joined the Louisville Ballet, she and Simpson flew to San Francisco to meet with Charles Chip McNeal, the San Francisco Ballet’s education manager. McNeal provided Muhammad and Simpson with a review of the “Lambarena” education program and the logistics involved in setting it up. From there, Muhammad returned to Louisville to work with other ballet staff to identify additional staffing and logistical and material needs of the program and, of course, decide how to allot the budget the ballet allocated to meet those needs. In the end, she and the ballet staff created the project with $50,000. A large part of the budget covered human resources. The ballet was able to keep these costs low, she said, thanks in part to artists who agreed to work on the project at reduced fees. Even after establishing the program’s details, Muhammad got to work with McNeal again when he came to Louisville for a week in September to oversee some workshops of the first sessions. Of the more than 20 companies that have performed “Lambarena,” Simpson said the Louisville Ballet’s Lambarena Project has been the largest education program attached to the piece. And the project could continue into the future. Simpson explained that the Louisville Ballet has a contract that allows it to perform “Lambarena” during a three-year period. If the company chooses to, it can stage the ballet and conduct the accompanying Lambarena Project during the next two school years.“It’s not just a pretty piece of dance,” Simpson said, adding that “Lambarena” imparts knowledge about history, geography, diversity as well as the cross-cultural nature of today’s world and how art was produced and is created today. He noted that very few dance pieces act as a vehicle for discussion of so many relevant subjects.Simpson and Muhammad said the city’s experience with the Louisville Ballet’s Lambarena Project could help the company expand its educational efforts in all parts of the city. Simpson added, “Because we belong to the community of Louisville.” Contact the writer at ekramer@leoweekly.com