Like its main character, Ballethnic Dance Company’s signature work The Leopard Tale is something of an enigma.
Near the end, the Leopard finds himself surrounded by a band of spear-wielding Warriors. He escapes the chase by slipping behind a tree, then springs from hiding and throws himself onto the hunters’ shoulders in what seems to be a desperate attack. This leads to his capture and expulsion, followed by a village-wide celebration.
Last Friday, for the first time in 32 years, Ballethnic Dance Company enlivened the Alliance Theatre’s main stage with The Leopard Tale’s vibrant, multi-textured and life-affirming African music and dance.
But the ending may leave audience members confused. During the production’s first half, the Leopard gained sympathy as he endured losing his mate, her offspring, his pride — even his will to live — then fought to get it back. But when villagers celebrated his banishment, it was hard not to wonder, did the production’s Act I protagonist become Act II’s villain? Which hero were we supposed to root for?
A bit of context may help provide an answer.
When choreographer Waverly Lucas developed Act II in 1991 and added Act I in 1994, the ballet helped establish the company’s identity through its unique blend of classical ballet with West African dance’s fluid, grounded polyrhythmic moves.
From today’s perspective, The Leopard Tale shows how Lucas and cofounder Nena Gilreath adapted ballet, a European art form, for their multicultural and largely African-American community. In Ballethnic’s take on dance, theatrical elements are part of a larger form that embraces and empowers community, just as dance has done for eons in indigenous cultures in Africa and worldwide.
Diversity, equity and inclusion were at the forefront of Ballethnic’s mission decades before it became a national trend, and Ballethnic will be recognized at the Kennedy Center this summer for 32 years of doing this work.
As with American versions of The Nutcracker, and Ballethnic’s own Urban Nutcracker set on Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn Avenue during the 1940s, The Leopard Tale provides a succession of roles for students rising through Ballethnic’s school and an opportunity for them to perform alongside professionals. Unlike standard Nutcracker productions, The Leopard Tale features a West African savannah setting that is potentially more relevant to a person of African ancestry. Instead of a sugar-coated fairy kingdom, we have a natural ecosystem, a predatory world where different groups of African animals, from gazelles and lions to vultures, hyenas and snakes — their distinct movement qualities adding texture to Lucas’ choreography — compete to survive.
Kat Conley’s new set design created an aura of freshness, with a backdrop of hut roofs and basket motifs woven in earth tones ranging from terracotta and coral to sand-beige and teal. Circular spiral motifs also represented hovering tree branches or swirls overhead that were both vibrant and welcoming. L. Gerard Reid’s original score and live West African drumming propelled the story of a big cat’s survival on the savannah and his subsequent encounter with humans.
Calvin Gentry, with a taut, muscular physique seemingly made for the title role, embodied the Leopard’s ferocity and slinky grace. At one moment, Gentry crouched low, clawed fingers gripping the ground as he cast a penetrating stare at the audience, his body held in silent, alert tension. He quickly sprang into a series of bold pirouettes and aerial turns, then leapt just beyond the warriors’ reach.
Karla Tyson played his mate, who lost her cubs to predators and then endured grief, hunger and her own painful death the same way. Tyson and Gentry made a fearlessly driven on-stage pair who embodied their feline roles with deep commitment and sparkling chemistry.
Tyson was a chameleon performer. After her first character died, she danced a slithery pas de deux as part of a pair of featured Snakes, then helped lead in Act II as both Priestess and Villager, heightening the celebration with strong pointe work, clean lines, an articulate upper body and a dazzling smile.
Dr. Theresa Howard led Act II’s opening libation, inviting audience members to participate in a traditional blessing of their gathering place, where liquid is poured as an offering to ancestors. Lucas appeared as the towering, deep-voiced Witch Doctor. After a lengthy encounter between Leopard and a powerful ensemble of male Warriors, different social groups — Elders, Warriors, Village Women, Priestesses, teens and children — performed distinct dances in colorful African patterned textiles and ceremonial dress.
It was, at times, a little over the top, perhaps recalling Chuck Davis’ large-scale African dance concerts, but with classical ballet blended in. Gilreath, as Priestess, moved on and off pointe to drummers’ propulsive rhythms, her legs firmly pulled up, yet mobile and grounded as her arms and upper body articulated rhythms with free-swinging ease.
Dance of the African diaspora is ever-evolving, and some of the choreography appears dated today. Students with varying abilities appeared alongside strong professionals. It all reflected Ballethnic’s commitment to its community, and this production empowers community as much as many age-old indigenous dance forms do theirs. As for the story’s ambiguous end, it speaks to the value of inclusiveness: even the stealthiest, fiercest and most resourceful of natural loners is no match for the power of a village.
Cynthia Bond Perry has covered dance for ArtsATL since the website was founded in 2009. One of the most respected dance writers in the Southeast, she also contributes to Dance Magazine, Dance International and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She has an M.F.A. in narrative media writing from the University of Georgia.