The story takes place in 1898 in the all-black pioneer town of Nicodemus, Kan., which choreographer and co-Artistic Director Waverly T. Lucas II said he originally imagined as a Hollywood version of the Wild West.
But as he began research in 2009 and paid a visit to the town started by former slaves, now populated by fewer than 30 residents, Lucas said at a recent lecture/demonstration at Clark Atlanta University, reality sunk in.
“My perception of the West was tainted. The challenge to the settlers was not race, but the environment,” he said about the treeless prairie subject to extremes in weather. Its relevance resonates with the company itself, said co-Artistic Director Nena Gilreath.
“The struggle to keep Ballethnic as something our own and not let somebody take it away, that was symbolic to the land, for me,” she said.
Gilreath said turning the play into plies, leaps, kicks and pirouettes was also a challenge.
“How are we going to turn these words into movements?” she said she remembered asking. “That’s the push and pull, just like ‘Flyin’ West’ and the elements they had to survive.”
Cleage also attended the lecture/demonstration and said the concept of telling the story in dance took her by surprise.
“It never occurred to me it ever would be a ballet,” she said.
The characters, all but one based on actual settlers, created a departure from the fantasy creatures of the company’s “Jazzy Sleeping Beauty” and “Urban Nutcracker.”
Despite their setting in another time and place, the characters and their struggles have the power to move modern Atlanta audiences, Gilreath said.
“It’s a love story, it’s a hate story, it’s a history story in the making,” she said. “All of those things, even though it has a historical context, are things we deal with now every day.”
If you go:
When: March 20 through 23
Where: Rialto Center for the Arts, 80 Forsyth St., downtown Atlanta
Tickets: $29 to $52
Information: (404) 413-9849 or www.ballethnic.org