Adahli Aranda Corn traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2005 to research and experience Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, the subject of Bluegrass Youth Ballet's latest production.
Even though Corn, the founder and director of the young people's ballet, grew up in Mexico, she thought she hadn't fully embraced its cultural traditions until she moved away.
"When we leave our hometown, then we start getting into traditions that you never really paid attention to," she says. "I started really getting into Día de los Muertos."
Día de los Muertos is a cultural tradition rooted in indigenous religious practices and later blended with Catholicism.
"They believe on this day, all the souls from people who have passed away come back to earth and visit their loved ones," Corn says. "So it's like the one time in the year when there's a bridge between these two dimensions.
"In order for people to accept the arrival of the soul, they make altars with flowers and food and items that specific loved ones liked, so that the soul will recognize their home and be able to arrive and be with their loved ones for the day."
Her journey to Oaxaca took her deeper into those traditions than she ever had been during the 22 years she had lived in Mexico.
"I got to talk to families, interview people and spend the nights in the cemetery," another Día de los Muertos tradition in some places. "Some people invited me to their houses to see their altars."
She says it felt natural to process that powerful experience in Mexico by creating a ballet. But she wondered: Would a ballet that focused on a celebration of life through the lens of death be accepted by Central Kentucky audiences?
"It was something I felt really compelled to do but at the same time was a little bit scared because it is so different from what we're used to here," she says. "I wasn't sure how it would be taken and whether people would accept or reject it."
Because this will be the fifth year that Día de Los Muertos has been performed, it is safe to say that Lexington audiences have embraced the ballet.
The story revolves around a typical Mexican family whose young daughter dies from a snakebite. The family's village rallies around them for support, and the rituals and traditions of the Day of the Dead become a comfort to them.
The soul of the girl, alternately played by Corn's 10-year-old daughter, Adahli E. Corn, and Anna Maria Seebold, both fluent in Spanish, returns to her family on that day so they can be at peace with her death. Corn describes a dance between the little girl and her mother as particularly emotional.
"They say that the little ones, that children's souls arrive first," Corn says of the moment in the ballet when the departed souls return to earth.
"The mom feels that her daughter is there and then they have this really beautiful dance together," she says. "It's a dance of closure, knowing that she's there but they can't really see each other or touch each other. It's very powerful, very touching."
A few times, Corn has had to stand in for the mother's role in rehearsal and dance the scene with her daughter, who auditioned for the role last year but "wasn't ready." This year, she is.
"That scene where they find each other is almost too much to be able to do," Corn says. "I mean I have to really focus and make sure I'm not getting personal and not seeing her as a soul, because it's so emotional."
IF YOU GO
Bluegrass Youth Ballet: 'Día de los Muertos'
When: 7 p.m. Nov. 1, 3 p.m. Nov. 2
Where: Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short St.
Tickets: $17.50. Available at (859) 233-3535 or Ticketmaster, 1-800-745-3000 or Ticketmaster.com.
Learn more: Bluegrassyouthballet.com
Other related events in Lexington include:
Day of the Dead Festival. 5-9 p.m. Nov. 1. Living Arts and Science Center, 362 N. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Activities, performances, parade. $2 suggested donation. (859) 252-5222. LASClex.org.
Día de los Muertos Celebration. 11 a.m. Nov. 2. Headley-Whitney Museum, 4435 Old Frankfort Pike, Lexington. $10. Headley-whitney.org.
Day of the Dead Costume Gala. 7 p.m. Nov. 2. Blue Stallion Brewing Co., 610 W. Third St. Live music, dancing, costume contest. $10-$25. Projectflashpoint.com.
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer.