Photo Credit: sirkphotography
Founded in 1990, Ballethnic Dance Company has a strong history of using dance to communicate messages of social change to its community. With this company, owners Waverly Lucas and Nena Gilreath created access for dancers in the Atlanta area, who in spite of their power were overlooked. Through Ballethnic Dance Company and Academy, Lucas and Gilreath infuse African dance into original and popular ballets and offer art exposure and education through outreach to schools and community groups.
With the company’s 30th anniversary rapidly approaching, I was able to speak to Gilreath about what inspired she and her husband to start Ballethnic Dance Company and about the many positive things that this company brings to Atlanta’s dance scene.
DN: What inspired you and your husband to start Ballethnic Dance Company 30 years ago? Any special plans for the company’s 30th anniversary?
NG: Both Waverly and I started out dancing at the Dance Theatre of Harlem, which was truly an inspiring and uplifting experience. Then, when we came to Atlanta, we joined the Atlanta Ballet. Atlanta is a predominately African American city, and we noticed an opportunity to bring elite training to youth because, at the time, ballet wasn’t accessible and affordable. We always taught ballet and did outreach while at the Atlanta Ballet, but also reached out to Louis Johnson (choreographer of 'The Wiz') to start a company and we wanted to work for him. He told us that running a company was a job for young people and assured us that we were perfect for the job, so we went for it.
In celebration of our 30th year, we will bring back our signature ballet 'Leopard Tale' in March. 'Leopard Tale' is an African ballet story that treats audiences to a variety of genres including ballet, African, modern, and jazz. It has an original score for act one, and act two is set in a make-believe African village. The ballet contrasts classical with African and features a lot of pas de deux. Dancers in this production range from ages 5-76.
DN: Talk about the Urban Nutcracker performances coming up. Do they include just company members? Do academy students have a chance to try out? Are auditions open to the public?
NG: Our company members perform the leads in 'Urban Nutcracker,' but we also have an overall audition for dancers from other communities and dance schools. Our academy students are also in the production and the Ballethnic Youth Ensemble does most of the pointe part. We’ve even had a senior dance company that’s been in the show for about 15 years. The Ballethnic Company has a desire to create community- one where older people are held in high regard and respected. In fact, most of our productions showcase older people in vital parts of the shows. This year’s production of ‘Urban Nutcracker' is very special because we are taking it back to the Morehouse King Chapel, which is the first place we produced the show in 1993.
Photo Credit: sirkphotography
DN: Why do you think it’s important to use dance as a message for social change?
NG: We’ve always used dance to highlight the positive aspects of our community. We try to create things that are brilliant, collaborative, collective, and unified to offset the negatives. Our original ballets are projects that everyone can commit to with a sense of pride. Even when it came to painting the backdrop for our upcoming ballet 'Urban Nutcracker,' everyone pitched in and it made them feel like a part of the production.
Dance promotes healthy living, healthy aging, and respect. It also helps to get kids off of the street. When kids find an activity to do four to five times a week that they enjoy, then they are too tired to do anything else that could harm them.
DN: Through your community involvement, what differences do you see in children that have the arts in their lives?
NG: In addition to getting kids off the streets, when youth have the arts in their lives they tend to have better grades too. In the past, we’ve had some difficult students, and school counselors have come to watch their kids in ballet class, because a lot of kids would say their happiest times were in ballet class at Ballethnic. Waverly is strong male role model and early on he developed a program to teach dance through sports. Additionally, we are also in area schools and churches because this is about more than just dance; it’s about forming a positive community.
Photo Credit: ballethnic.org
DN: Does the company have any plans to tour in 2020?
NG: In 2020, we plan to rebuild the touring part of our company. We recently brought on a new interim managing director, Thelma Horton, who used to be our booking agent, and she’s getting us ready to tour again. We used to do a lot of touring, but then settled down and built a home base near the airport in Atlanta. We stepped back to asses what was important, and now things are popping! Ballethnic always does run outs in the south, specifically demonstrations in North Carolina, but we plan to get back to our ballet and ethnic blend. Waverly is actually in Ireland right now studying ethno-choreography and learning lots of Irish dance!
For more information on the Ballethnic Dance Company, visit ballethnic.org . You can also follow the company on social media:
YouTube: Ballethnic Dance Company