Inspired by the words and music of black composers and performers, Ion Dance could easily have been a predictable, conventional dance concert set to ragtime, jazz and R&B, but conventional is not what the Lexington Ballet is going for in this original piece commemorating Black History Month.
It pairs dancers with actors, hip-hop with ragtime, spoken word with movement, ballet with jazz.
But besides being a mashup of seemingly contradictory dance and music styles, Ion Dance is unconventional in that even though it's a celebration of black culture, there are no black dancers onstage. Four Lexington actors who play iconic musicians and composers will be the only black people on the stage.
Lexington Ballet artistic director Luis Dominguez says he is painfully aware of that. ("I'm loving that you're touching on this subject," he tells a reporter.)
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Dominguez, a native of Mexico City, has a résumé that includes seasons with Alvin Ailey and Dance Theatre of Harlem, companies that are famous for developing young black and Latino dancers into world-class artists.
Why isn't that happening in Lexington?
Dominguez says Lexington Ballet's company is ethnically diverse (one dancer is a native of Japan and another is Latino, he says), but there are no black dancers in the troupe this year. That has not always been the case, and a lot of the reason is money, Dominguez says.
"We have a limited budget," he says. "We cut our company from 16 dancers last year to six this year." The board has made strides in paying down debts, "to the tune of $80,000," he says, but resources remain tight. "I tell the board I need more dancers," he says. "Where are the black swans? I know they're out there."
The easy part is finding young black dancers with professional training and talent. The hard part is finding the money to pay them, he says.
Early in Ion Dance, the actors, portraying legends Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Stevie Wonder, stand together and proclaim, "We always had our eye on dance." Taking his cue from that line, Dominguez chose his title for the piece: Ion Dance.
The name of the show — born of a request from Yetta Young, executive director of the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, the historic landmark of Lexington's black community, where it will be performed — is a play on words, but it's also meant to embody the charged, volatile atomic particle in the title: unexpectedly powerful and magnetic.
Dominguez's choreography sometimes seems ready to blow apart. The piece is built on seemingly opposing combinations.
In one scene, a cluster of actors drifts through a chorus of dancers in toe shoes strutting en pointe to Scott Joplin's ragtime classic The Entertainer. Later, teen ballerinas move to Michael Jackson's beats, followed by a duo of professional dancers combining modern jazz steps, hip-hop and a bit of Vegas pizzazz to Miles Davis' Blow. In all, there are more than 20 numbers featuring the words and music of artists including Duke Ellington, Jimi Hendrix and Aretha Franklin.
Angela Williams, an actor in Ion Dance and a native Kentuckian, says the challenges of casting an ethnically diverse troupe of dancers reaches beyond the rehearsal hall.
"It's about exposure," she says. "Both my parents went to segregated schools. A lot of things are still so segregated. The black theater community is small and tight."
Williams says she thinks the problem is both historical and contemporary.
"How many of our parents went to the ballet when they were young? How many single moms can take their kids to the theater now?" she asks. "If the seed is planted, it can flourish and grow, but if that seed is never planted, then what?"
Because hiring additional professional dancers for his company is not an option, Dominguez says he is trying to develop the talent that is here.
"When I go and do outreach programs, I want to make sure that young little kids out there know this is something you can make a career from," he says. "This can take you very far. ... I am looking out there to diversify my company," he says.
To that end, discounted seats have been made available for two special performances of Ion Dance for schoolchildren.
But how can artists build bridges between what is and what is possible? What holds these shards of period, style and culture together? Talking about the source of his unique style, trumpet great Armstrong once said, "You blow who you is. What else can you do?"
And so, the dancers in Ion Dance dance who they are. They are trained artists, rooted in the discipline of their own tradition, and they approach Ray Charles and Bessie Smith with the same respect they would give to Tchaikovsky or Prokofiev.
Dominguez says his choreography doesn't ask his dancers to deny who they are.
"We are finding connections between ourselves and the speakers," he says. "We reflect one another's intentions and experiences."