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SPOTLIGHT : TALES TOLD IN DANCE : Work Built on Words of St. Joseph Ballet Members

June 01, 1995|CORINNE FLOCKEN | Corinne Flocken is a free-lance writer who regularly covers Kid Stuff for The Times Orange County Edition.

The more than 200 youths who dance in the St. Joseph Ballet company don't have much time for daydreaming.

Ranging in age from 9 to 19, troupe members, many of whom come from the county's most disadvantaged neighborhoods, balance the demands of school, jobs, family and peers to spend up to six days a week studying dance under the watchful eye of company founder Beth Burns and a handful of professional instructors. They've been working particularly hard lately, preparing for what might well be the high point in many of these youngsters' lives: the St. Joseph Ballet spring concert, "Rise," a program of new and reprised works today through Saturday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.

"Rise" includes three works that the ballet troupe premiered last spring at the Irvine theater: "Mother Me," set to tunes by Bobby McFerrin; "Moving, Remembering, Arriving," performed to Aaron Copland's Three Latin American Sketches, and "HomeFree," a celebratory dance set to the music of the Ugandan group Samite, which the Santa Ana-based company performed at the December opening of the Bowers Kidseum.

Headlining the concert is the premiere of "Talitha Koum," a series of five dances choreographed by Burns. Focusing on such themes as family unity, street violence, grief and compassion, the dances were inspired by candid dialogue between Burns and members of the company. In the performance, recorded excerpts from the interviews combine with an original score by Eduardo del Barrio, abstract canvases donated by Kansas artist Rita Blitt, costumes by Jennifer Langeberg and the students' own black and white photography to provide a backdrop for the dances.

Although the interviews began as casual conversations recorded over the past few months, Burns says she has long felt the need to share them with a larger audience.

"I've spent so many hours talking with the children about their lives, I wanted our audiences to be able to listen to them, too," explained Burns, 39, a former member of the Sisters of St. Joseph religious order who founded the ballet in 1983 in a church basement. "As a community, we need to hear more from these children.

"They have hard lives. They deal every day with their family's financial concerns, teen pregnancy, gang pressure and gang violence. . . . It's a very different world than the one many people have grown up with. That's why we need to try so hard to understand them."

Burns, a graduate of Loyola Marymount, has been a student of dance since she was 10. With funding from the Ahmanson Foundation and the blessing of her religious superiors, she started the St. Joseph Ballet with the goal of giving inner-city youths a sense of accomplishment, discipline and self-worth through dance. She left the order in 1989 and now leads the company full time with the help of a three-person staff and a handful of instructors, many of whom have danced professionally with international companies.

St. Joseph Ballet operates from a 4,000-square-foot office and studio donated by the Fiesta Marketplace Assn. in downtown Santa Ana. With an annual operating budget of $300,000--most of it donated by individuals and corporations--the company provides dance training and performance opportunities to low-income youths, 96% of whom receive full or partial scholarships. Burns figures that more than 25,000 young people have participated in the program.

When she discussed the idea of recording the interviews with her students, their response was "very generous and very honest," said Burns, who, with writer Brian Glassier, culled 15 minutes of the children's comments from hours of recorded conversations.

At the concert, audiences will hear the voice of a young boy as he talks candidly about the shooting death of his 19-year-old cousin. A girl recounts a drug high that was "like, better than counseling"; another recalls watching a friend lie bleeding from a gunshot wound on his mother's doorstep. Friends thought the boy would recover, but he soon died, causing the girl to remark with a hollow little laugh, "I guess things didn't turn out the way we thought."

Not all the recollections are harsh. In fact, said Burns, the predominant mood she found while talking to the youths was one of hope and self-reliance, even in the face of adversity. Many of the excerpts reveal a strong bond with their families, especially mothers, whom some children describe in almost awe-struck tones. The children talk about the peace and sense of accomplishment they get from dancing, their respect for their ethnic heritage and their plans for the future.

"You look at these children and their challenges and the glorious thing is that they're not all sad and depressed," Burns said. "They have so much hope. People who come to our concerts for the first time have no idea how much they can receive from these kids."

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