Kevin Thomas, artistic director of Collage Dance Collective, watches intently as four dancers sway and lunge across the studio floor. The angular movements are athletic yet lyrical as the dancers, Brandye Lee, Daphne Lee, Bernard DuBois II, and Daniel Cooke, respond to the music, a repetitive, staccato piano movement that is echoed in their jumpy style. The performance is riveting.
January has shaped up to be an exciting month for the company.
First the company traveled to Manhattan to participate in a conference produced by the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. This international meet-up, which showcases live works by theater, music, comedy, and dance companies, puts Collage in front of important decision makers as they ponder their upcoming seasons.
Collage then took RISE, a concert inspired by the legacy and contributions of civil rights giants, to Washington, D.C., for a performance during the Dr. Martin Luther King weekend. The choreography of one piece features text from King's "I've Been to the Mountaintop" address.
A Memphis performance of RISE takes place at the Cannon Performing Arts Center Sunday, January 22nd, at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $25-$40.
"When you come to see RISE, it's a visual representation of our mission," says executive director Marcellus Harper. "You get to see the trajectory of excellence and the themes that we're addressing."
Thomas and Harper founded Collage Dance Collective in 2006 while living in NYC. Theirs is one of the few classical ballets companies of color nationally. Thomas, a native of Montreal, Canada, received his training with L'Ecole Supérieure de Ballet du Québec and went on to dance with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, Cleveland San Jose Ballet, and the Dance Theatre of Harlem.
"When I danced with Harlem, it was the first time I danced with other people of color. It was very empowering," says Thomas. That experience fanned Thomas' desire to launch his own company.
Harper grew up influenced by the rich arts scene of Washington, D.C. A double major at the University of Maryland in biology and theater, he eventually worked for Marriott in corporate marketing and event production before moving into nonprofit management. A position with St. Jude Children's Research Hospital brought the pair to Memphis in 2007. They believed their vision, to build a ballet corps of color and to make classical training available to African-American children, particularly boys, could fill a void.
"Today over 12 [black ballerinas] are living and working in Memphis," notes Harper. "That progress is encouraging."
Collage started modestly, renting rehearsal space from churches in Midtown while Thomas worked as artistic coordinator at New Ballet Ensemble. In 2009, Collage moved into their studio in the Broad Avenue Arts District and began the dance academy. An anonymous donor enabled the company to fully employ its nine dancers in 2015.
The company's mission is to inspire the growth of ballet in Memphis' African-American community and develop a knowledgable audience. Fifty percent of those who attend their performances say they've never been to the ballet, according to Harper. "We're educating students and parents to see this art form and [promoting] understanding on how arts organizations are supported. We need community support beyond buying tickets," he says. "We need people volunteering by serving on our board, by becoming donors who will support with financial resources to produce art of this caliber and grow it."
RISE will give viewers a feel for their emotive, powerful style as the troupe interprets works by nationally known choreographers Kevin Iega Jeff and Thomas.
Come, be moved.