“The Leopard Tale,” staged through last Sunday at the Rialto Center for the Arts at Georgia State University, was a fun, evening-length performance in the tradition of the Christmas favorite “The Nutcracker.” Ballethnic Dance Company, under the direction of Waverly T. Lucas II and Nena Gilreath, brought together company dancers with those of the Ballethnic Youth Ensemble in a story of survival set in the heart of the African jungle.
Act I served as prologue, conjuring up a village and telling the saga of the animals of the African landscape, which culminated in the capture of the Leopard by village warriors. The use of a recorded score of L. Gerard Reid’s original musical composition emphasized the feeling of a history told by the villagers through their dance and music. Members of the animal community materialized out of a misty fog, ebbing and flowing amid the lush, mysterious depths of the African continent.
Sometimes they danced in synergy; sometimes one group chased another from the stage. A mirroring sequence between the Leopardess, danced en pointe by Brandy Carwile, and the Leopard, portrayed by Calvin Gentry, was especially captivating. While Gentry is technically proficient, his technique is usually not the most memorable quality of his performance.
He enchanted with lithe movement, dangerous grace and sinuous elegance, broken only when his character inexplicably launched into a series of ballet-inspired pirouettes or fouêttés. His leaps were powerful, his face expressive, and the character of the Leopard created through the movement was compelling. Act I ends with the first encounter by the Leopard, driven from his home by his shrinking habitat, with his ultimate predator, man.
“The Leopard Tale” is filled with contrasts. Where Act I is set in the dim, gray-green shadows of the forest, Act II is brilliantly colorful and intense. It began with musicians, dressed in the white garments of Yoruba worship, playing percussion instruments as they entered the theater through the audience.
The use of live music indicated that the second-act events were occurring in real time. As the warriors displayed the captured Leopard in the village, their movement was intensely authoritative, even as they showed respect for its teeth and claws. The movement in Act II had its foundations chiefly in African dance, and the dancers included not only the professional wing of the company and the Youth Ensemble, but the “company elders,” all performing together as a cast that numbered more than 100 dancers of varying experience and abilities. “The Leopard Tale” provided the young dancers an unusual opportunity to perform publicly. For this alone, the company can be forgiven the occasional relaxed foot or lowered chin among them.
African dance was the most powerful style used in the production. It was fast, energetic and athletic, and the dancers cross-trained for months to acquire the necessary strength and stamina. A unique flavor was provided by a group of women who performed some of the African dance movements en pointe, a difficult task because pointe shoes require a lifted center of gravity that makes the dancer appear weightless, while African dance calls for a lower center of gravity and the dancer to be grounded to the earth.
The dancers and musicians obviously enjoyed the celebration in Act II, and their enjoyment was infectious: the audience for the performance I attended demanded an encore.