Artistic director China Smith put her “babies” front and center in a mostly student choreographed and produced program titled “Whither or Fly, ” in which seven choreographers seamlessly blended ballet with African, Brazilian and contemporary dance styles.
Four of the choreographers, Terrance Carson, Frahnkee Sade’ Jones, Ryane Noelle Byrd and Danielle Nicole Thomas, are still in high school. These young adults presented works that showcased the energy of youth yet demonstrated a mature depth of emotion and dedication to their craft. They were also tasked with booking a venue, finding a crew and marketing the production, in other words, they learned dance and business.
Sophomore Terrance Carson, the only male performer, virtually flew across the stage in a display of strength and athleticism that thrilled the audience. Using all four young choreographers, Carson improvised a dance. He appeared to choose movements that hinted at the breadth of their talents. If he one day becomes artistic director of Ballet Afrique, as he aspires to be, the company will be in good hands.
Frahnkee Jones, also a sophomore, has the height and extension that will serve her well on her quest to become an Alvin Ailey dancer. Jones had the audience in awe, as her legs seemed to stretch across the stage. As did all the dancers, Jones exhibited a high level of mastery as she moved seamlessly from one type of dance to the next.
Watching senior Ryane Noelle Byrd dance is to see joy in motion. Byrd blended jazz, contemporary and modern dance to choreograph two very different pieces. As she dances she involves every part of her body. Flips of the hands become as important as leaps and pirouettes. The smallest movements become details that flesh out the picture and make it whole before our eyes. She was the only student choreographer to create a piece solely for other dancers.
Danielle Thomas burst onto the stage laughing and was joined by the rest of the dancers in an exuberant and disciplined display of West African dance. The audience could barely contain their excitement as the high school senior led the company in synchronized movements to the drumbeats so much a part of our heritage. In Thomas’s hands, spirit manifests movement.
The second half of the program included several large production numbers and artistic director China Smith’s solo dance “Wither or Fly.” For the ensemble dances, Ballet Afrique company members and choreographers Rebekah Fowler, who developed a Brazilian centered piece, and Elvie Underwood, who created the West African finale, joined the young choreographers on stage.
Fowler and Underwood’s works had many in the audience on their feet, dancing and clapping along. Even the smallest children were enthralled by the twirling, hip-shaking, leaping personification of energy that is dance in all its forms.
Ballet Afrique’s new generation of choreographers ensures a bright future for dance in Austin. Audiences have much to be excited about.