Until now, St. Joseph Ballet founder Beth Burns has created all the works for the Santa Ana-based youth company. But the troupe has come to a point at which it can reach out beyond her vision, she says.
"It's vital that there be more than one choreographic voice," Burns said in a recent phone interview from her office. "Having a different choreographic vision challenges our students to grow."
She invited Melanie Rios, a 29-year-old Kennedy Center Latin American Fellow, to take the spotlight this week as the first guest choreographer in the inner-city company's 17-year-history.
Rios' "All Heaven Broke Loose," to music by Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona, and "Embraceable You," to music by Gershwin, John Cage and John Adams, will be danced at the Irvine Barclay Theatre. The company's annual spring concert also will include Burns' "Uh-Huh!" and "A Seed."
The dancers, ages 9-19, will be doing very difficult and serious modern dance movement, Rios said during a recent lunch in Santa Ana.
"They're not used to the style, but they've had no reservations about it. They have launched themselves into the work and gone as far as creating material.
"They've been a pain sometimes," she said, laughing. "But aside from that, it's been very good."
Burns met Rios at a summer choreographers workshop in 1997 at Jacob's Pillow in the Berkshire hills of Western Massachusetts. She invited her to assist in a concert last year and, finding that the chemistry was right, invited her back to create for the company.
"She gave me complete freedom to do whatever I wanted, to do whatever I felt with integrity," Rios said. "She could have gone to someone in the middle range, but she really went post-postmodern."
Rios was born and raised in Guatemala. She studied ballet as a child, and though passionate about dancing really grew more interested in choreography.
"I was very interested in space," she said.
She created her first dance when she was 10 and "from then on, I would just take anyone who would volunteer and choreograph."
Her family--several of whom are economists--sent her to study economics at UC Santa Barbara. But she found herself drawn more to the modern dance department.
"I really was never very interested in economics. I couldn't get past calculus," she said.
She transferred to the Juilliard School to study dance on full scholarship for four years, graduating in 1994. Within a year, she returned to Guatemala to work for three seasons as a resident choreographer for the state-supported National Modern Dance Company.
So far, she has created more than 20 works, which have been performed in her native country, Colombia, New York, Philadelphia and Montpellier, France.
"My work has been described most often as quirky, imaginative, strange and humorous," she said. The last quality reflects her early training as a clown.
"I wanted to be a clown very badly," she said. "But old-fashioned clowns of that style have nowhere to go. It's a dying art. But I'm a firm believer that humor helps bridge any gap."
Rios also believes she can keep an edge on her work by deliberately putting off finishing it as long as possible.
"That gives it some kind of energy," she said. "The dancers still have to pay attention and watch each other, which I love, so that they are together.
"With the younger kids, this is very risky, but I'm counting on them to pull together."
Rios also is willing to take risks by going against cultural stereotypes that might arise from her identification as a Latin American choreographer.
"It's always worried me that Latin American art suffers from the 'Frida Kahlo Syndrome,' the need to do something that is very derivative or very illustrative of the First World concept of what Latin America is," she said. Frida Kahlo was a Mexican artist.
"There have been very few Latin American artists who have made a serious contribution to the modern movement without having to go into some kind of folkloric influence. I do wish that Latin American artists would free themselves of the necessity of having to use that kind of gimmick to have a cultural and an artistic identity."
Burns feels Rios' work rejects gimmicks and definitely has an artistic identity.
"Her work is accessible and serious," Burns said. "Her compositions are arresting. They teach the eye to look more intently at what you're watching."
More than that, Rios has exactly the touch the company needs.
"When I choose artists to work with our students," Burns said, "I look for wonderful human beings who are role models and have a special sensitivity to some of the life issues going on in our students. She's a really gifted human being as well as an artistic creator."
* St. Joseph Ballet will dance works by Melanie Rios and Beth Burns Wednesday through Saturday, 8 p.m. Also Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine. $10, general; $30, benefit. (949) 854-4646.
Chris Pasles can be reached at (714) 966-5602 or by e-mail at email@example.com.