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In Search of Selves

Hundreds of Local Children Contribute to St. Joseph Ballet's Latest Work by Being Who They Are


Mahler wrote "Symphony of a 1,000" for that many players, but Beth Burns, artistic director of the St. Joseph Ballet company, beat him by a couple of hundred in creating her newest dance work.

More than 1,200 children from the Santa Ana Unified School District collaborated with Burns for more than 10 months to create "By Being Who I Am," one of three works that make up "With Open Arms," the St. Joseph program that opens today and continues through Saturday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre. (The other works are Burns' "dreamChild" and "Hope Is the Ground," both created in 1996.)

The new piece began in August as a poetry project: Children were asked to write about themselves: "942 poems that were submitted by 33 teachers at 15 schools, from second to 12th grade," Burns recalled recently. "A selection panel picked 17 [to become] the core of the dance piece."

The poems were given to visual artists in the schools, who passed them on to their students. About 80 kids came up with paintings and collages reflecting the poems.

"There were more than 300 images created, and they're wonderful," Burns said, "really rich and fresh."

Four of the pieces were picked by Kate Edmunds, a scenic designer from San Francisco, to be backdrops for the ballet. (Others are on view through June 15 at the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach.)

Meanwhile, Burns was assembling her musical forces. Luis Perez, formerly a percussionist with Cirque du Soleil, began composing an original score he and a percussion choir will perform, live and on tape. Perez had worked with the company in 1993 when it presented "Dancing Into One" to an original score by Cirque composer Rene Dupere.

Burns said she "reached out to three intermediate schools, and junior high kids were invited to form the percussion choir. They made drums. We had rawhide that was wet in the studio. Imagine how this smells, animal skin, but you have to have it wet so you can stretch it. They've been practicing since summer to prepare the finale.

"But even then, that wasn't enough" to reach as many children as she wanted, she said. "So the elementary school down the road from us, Garfield Elementary School, started last September to audition their children for an honor choir, which they made a special class time for. They're performing in two scenes."

The piece is in five sections. Each is "a response to and an exploration of what's going on in the poetry," Burns said.

"Most of the poems will be said by the poets themselves. We've had volunteer vocal coaches working with the kids weekly since January, so they'll have a lot of presence on stage."


The piece begins with poems that reflect the kids' senses of identity. "It's 'who I am,' " Burns said, "and also 'how I look reflected in the world around me.' "

The second scene is "moments of freedom as a kid, and the choreography reflects that. It's pretty happy."

The third section deals with death. "A lot of these kids have experienced death directly," Burns said. "So we wanted to reflect that."

Scene Four continues the serious theme by focusing on "the loss of childhood. It includes a poem by a 15-year-old who had a child when she was 13," Burns said. "This is really a big issue for them."

When the final scene returns to the issue of identity, "this time it can be on a larger note than the first scene," Burns said. "There's a beautiful poem about finding oneself as a small part of the universe.

"I think even adults can think about this. It's easy for us to look at a complex world or the universe and to feel insignificant. But for her to say that, then to turn it on its head and to say, 'I'm part of something big,' that's really wonderful."


The piece ends with everyone back on stage.

"We have so many children expressing themselves that we have to spill out of the proscenium," Burns said.

This suits her just fine.

"The point of art or theater really is to make a circle between the performer and the audience, to have the audience participate as a player, to really engage their imagination and their thought. It's hard to believe that what happens there happens, but it does."

* St. Joseph Ballet performs tonight through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 2:30 p.m. at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive. $10 to $30. (714) 854-4646.

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