When Ballethnic Dance Company, one of the oldest Black ballet companies in the South, was founded in Atlanta in 1990, its goal was to bring the art of ballet to underserved communities.
“I felt like a city like Atlanta needed more opportunities for professional dancers, particularly ballet dancers,” said Nena Gilreath, co-founder and co-artistic director of the company. “I just felt that it was the place and the time that we could create and make a difference.”
Gilreath formed the company with her husband Waverly T. Lucas II, who also serves as artistic director. The group’s name comes from part of its mission to fuse ballet with ethnic dance forms, which will be on display when Ballethnic performs “Images of Life” this Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Alliance Theatre in Midtown.
Last month, the founders traveled to Tanzania, where they taught dancers about ballet and jazz, and they learned about East African dances, which they incorporated into the way they coached their own dancers for the upcoming shows.
For their trip, Gilreath and Lucas partnered with Africulture, an arts group that teaches traditional African dance, drama, drumming and other activities in the Bagamoyo community. Gilreath said they were inspired to make the journey because they weren’t familiar with East African dances. In addition to teaching classes at Africulture, they helped build a ballet barre and gave the group ballet dictionaries. Gilreath hopes that dancers from Africa will be able to teach East African routines at Ballethnic in the coming years.
“They were so excited, so curious to learn and they didn’t take anything for granted,” Gilreath said. “It was just really fulfilling and inspiring to see their love of what they do with very humble means.”
While in Africa, Lucas created a Tanzanian-inspired version of Ballethnic’s composition “Sanctity,” which Ballethnic will perform at the Alliance show. Last year, the dance company performed the ballet at the Kennedy Center. Gilreath said the ballet gives the dancers “an opportunity to dig deep and to say what things you treasure and what things are sacred to you.”
Lucas, who choreographed the piece, said instead of his typical method of leading with ballet and adding African dance concepts, he led with an African dance concept and added ballet elements later.
“For me, that was really fascinating, and I think this is what the whole idea of fusion is,” he said. “It was like jazz.”
“Sanctity” is one of two acts included in Ballethnic’s “Images of Life” performance at Alliance. The first act, “Jazzing: Memoirs in Jazz,” weaves Lucas’ choreography with the art of the late, Florida-based photographer Herb Snitzer, who was known for capturing some of the most beloved jazz musicians in the world. He died last year, not long after Lucas interviewed him.
“It was just amazing, his being a Jewish man with these Black artists and living in and being subjected to some of the same conditions that they were in and situations that they were in and being looked upon in a strange way for being with them,” Lucas said. “He was so endearing in how he found this kindred spirit, and sometimes that’s what it’s about.”
During her visit to Tanzania, Gilreath learned that East African dance forms are filled with fast movements and exuberance. Although those dance moves aren’t used in Ballethnic’s upcoming shows, she said she plans to use them in future productions.
“I was talking to (our) dancers about how to use your breath because East Africa is on the Indian Ocean, so while we were there, we spent a lot of time at the beach. The influence of the ocean and how it moves gives you a (relaxing) kind of flow, so it’s helping the dancers, as we transition from here to the stage, understand their flow and what looks and feels comfortable to the stage.”
With “Images of Life,” Gilreath and Lucas want to reflect and honor the different facets of life across various communities and experiences, as they did during their visit to Tanzania.
“We believe that dance is something that you can have your whole life,” Gilreath said. “It can help you to be whole and free and that it’s spiritual and that’s our approach. We’re known for really creating great technical dancers, but for me, I want people to love dance the way we do. I want to spread the gospel of dance at its highest level.”
IF YOU GO
“Images of Life” by Ballethnic Dance Company. 8 p.m. Aug. 25, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Aug. 26 and 3 p.m. Aug. 27. $40-80. Alliance Theatre. 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-4600, alliancetheatre.org