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BARRIO BALLET : Directed by a 31-Year-Old Nun, Dancers--Mostly Latino and From Poor Families Themselves--'Touch the Souls' of Youth

October 20, 1988|PAULA VOORHEES

Jeers from the audience spattered like rotten tomatoes as the dancers took their places.

The pachucos roughhousing in the auditorium were a tough audience.

Students enjoying a break from classes, but not looking forward to a ballet program, jostled restlessly and talked loudly.

Profanities knifed across aisles, followed by raucous laughter.

Fearful but resolute--even confident--45 Santa Ana teen-agers started their performance. Ever so gradually, the audience became quiet . . . serious . . . reflective.

When the lights came back on an hour later, there was no applause; students sat in moody silence. A lanky 15-year-old Latino--a collage of tattered denim, leather and chains with a gang scarf knotted around his right calf--brushed away a tear with the back of a tattooed fist.

A lone, tentative clap rang out. Then another. Soon the whole auditorium vibrated from a thunderous ovation.

Ballet for the street-wise Home Boys from Santa Ana's barrio?

"We were very nervous about performing at Santa Ana High School," says Sister Beth Burns, director, choreographer and guiding light of the St. Joseph Ballet Company. "I heard from a boy I had counseled in Juvenile Hall that it was the toughest school around. He was afraid to walk down the halls without his knife.

"But our dancers, mostly Latino and from poor families, wanted to perform there, to reach out, to touch their souls," she says.

"The students felt a powerful connection with our dancers and the themes of our dances. We managed to touch their souls. What more can any performer ask?"

What were the powerful themes that quieted and touched these youngsters? The ones they live with. Burns wants dance to address problems facing young people, especially inner-city children, every day.

"Street Games" examines the dynamics of gang hostility and its tragic consequences.

"I interviewed an expert on gang behavior from Occidental College," says Burns, 31, a Loyola Marymount graduate. "I wanted to find out what, if anything, could influence gang violence. He said that gang workers--former members who try to iron out gang differences--are highly regarded by all gang members. They feel these workers are the only people they can really trust. If something happens to a gang worker, it really shakes up the gangs."

"Street Games" tells the story of a gang worker who tries to break up a fight caused by one gang member writing graffiti in a rival gang's territory. The gang worker is killed trying to unite the warring gangs. Members of both gangs are so shocked by his death that they develop an emotional but not physical unity. The audience is left to reflect on one person's ultimate sacrifice for that brief moment of unity.

"In another dance, called 'Bright Driven Star,' we perform to the music of 'Firebird' by Igor Stravinsky," Burns says. "It is a very rousing and inspiring piece. I tell the audience before the dance that stars in the sky are overwhelmingly huge and beautiful. But really, they are just a cold rock, a mass of simple chemicals. I explain that each and every member of the audience has the opportunity to shine brighter than any star ever could because God gave them the ability to love, sacrifice, share, laugh and be compassionate."

Since its inception in 1983, her company has been touching the souls not only of its audiences but also of its performers. Made up of dancers ages 9 to 19--68% of whom are Latino and 90% of whom are from low-income families--the group is the only dance company in the county that seeks out and trains young people who could not otherwise afford the chance to dance.

"One of the problems of these inner-city children," Burns says, "is they see no future for themselves. They see a vicious circle where there is no escape for them. They will end up in the same kind of life style their parents are trapped in.

"Our dance program allows these children the opportunity to grow in self-esteem, self-discipline, and to strive for achievement through the intensive training and performance schedule."

An annual dance concert is given each spring, as well as performances at community and civic events, schools and convalescent homes. All students, whatever their level of talent, dance in these performances.

Tryouts for the dance troupe are held twice a year at the Episcopal Church of the Messiah in Santa Ana. "To be accepted, all you have to do is show a little coordination and a lot of desire," Burns says.

For $10 per month--which is waived if the family can't afford it--members are supplied with dance costumes and given instruction in classical ballet and jazz two to five times a week, depending on their level of ability. Burns teaches the classes.

The energetic, vivacious nun came from a family of four girls and has been involved with dance since she was young. She had no desire to become a nun until she entered college. While there, friends talked her into attending services each night before dinner. That led to prayer and Bible study. Finally, one day:

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