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‘Too Beauty’ – a spring concert with ‘tu-tu’ roots

  • Written by Tri-State Defender Newsroom

No so well known is the tie between African Americans and the fine art of ballet. Collage dance Collective seeks to change that. Special to the Tri-State Defender

Memphis is known the throughout the world as a soulful, artistic city. African Americans here are deeply rooted in the musical genres often associated with the city – soul, rock, blues, jazz and gospel – and that fact is not lost on music lovers.

Prima ballerina Paunika Jones in “Dying Swan.” (Photos courtesy of Collage dance Collective.)

No so well known is the tie between African Americans and the fine art of ballet. Collage dance Collective seeks to change that. Its mission is to increase the visibility of dancers of color, bringing more of “us” center stage, all the while embracing the broader vision of becoming cultural ambassadors for the city of Memphis across the globe through ballet.

Collage dance Collective was founded in 2004 in New York by former Dance Theatre of Harlem principal, Kevin Thomas, who is the Artistic Director, and Marcellus Harper, who is the Managing Director. Collage is comprised of a cadre of dancers whose experience and training range from Alvin Ailey to the San Jose Ballet to Royal Ballet of London.

Marcellus Harper
“African-American dancers are more than hip hop, crumping and other street dancing. Just as Latin dancers are more than salsa and flamenco,” said Thomas.

“As in every other area of life, we are dynamic and multi-dimensional. We are not a monolith. There are many, many beautiful dancers who are classically trained. We want to shine a light on that. We are just as talented in traditional dance.”

Harper picks up from there.

“We’ve noticed now that the other larger dance companies in the city have started to become more inclusive in terms of having black faces on stage,” said Harper. “It honestly doesn’t matter how it happens. If we can affect change directly or indirectly, it’s a good thing.”

The ladies of the Petit Pas class.

Dancers on stage in Kansas City in the work “Capricious Chase.”

At Collage, the philosophy is that hard work, focus and discipline opens doors in life. Mastery and advancement to the professional level is the ultimate goal set for all students, with training tailored to each student’s body type.

“Each of us has natural limitations we must overcome based on our unique body types,” said Thomas. “The hurdles can be overcome when there is a ballet master or mistress whose eye is trained to transform obstacles to opportunities.

Thomas and Harper refer to themselves as Memphians “by choice,” meaning they chose to move to the city to anchor their company, which was relocated here in 2007. They chose to remain here despite some of the challenges of being “outsiders,” with no family members or existing network from which to build.

Impressed by the enormous amount of talent they saw in the young people, and noting the largely African-American population, Harper and Thomas knew Memphis was the perfect place to build upon their mission.

Forty students now are under the tutelage of Collage, which has built an impressive following, including a noteworthy honorable mention from Mayor A C Wharton Jr. The newest addition to the Collage family of dancers – and now a Memphian “by choice” – is Tiffany Glenn, a principal dancer and Director of Dancer Development. A prima ballerina at San Jose Ballet, Glenn’s is expected to be instrumental building the outreach arm and foundation of the company.

“I’ve always enjoyed Memphis when I visited and the young talent I’ve seen is amazing… now is the time for me to begin working towards my mission of creating new dance works and passing on the legacy of my ballet teachers to the next generation of dancers,” said Glenn.

On Saturday, May 14, the company will present the Spring concert, “Too Beauty,” at Weiner Theatre at The Hutchison School. Thomas reflected on his inspiration for the concert’s title.

“Throughout much of my career, before Dance Theatre of Harlem, I have been the only black ballet dancer or dancer of color. When I saw a black ballerina for the first time in her tu-tu, she was so striking,” he said.

“I knew then that I would devote my life’s work to ensuring that our faces were represented on the world stage. And I know now that this image could be as transformational to young dancers as it was for me.”

The program features the works of seven dynamic choreographers – Thomas, Glenn, Kevin Iega Jeff, Royston Maldoom, Billy Wilson, Sandra Holloway and Jamal Story – performed by a company of 10 professional dancers.

After the “Too Beauty” concert,Collage moves forward with its student showcase on June 12 at the Buckman Performing & Fine Arts Center, Summer Intensive on June 27, the Summer Social & Silent Auction in August and the Fall Concert in October.

To purchase tickets to this weekend’s performance, call 212-672.7504, or purchase them via the website: www.collagedance.org, where there is also information about the upcoming events.

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