Health & Medicine

Youth ballet's 'The Nightingale' highlights Chinese culture, dance

Isabelle Morgan performed as the Nightingale during a dress rehearsal of The Nightingale, directed by Adalhi Aranda Corn, at Bluegrass Youth Ballet in Lexington.
Isabelle Morgan performed as the Nightingale during a dress rehearsal of The Nightingale, directed by Adalhi Aranda Corn, at Bluegrass Youth Ballet in Lexington. Herald-Leader

Adalhi Aranda Corn gently talked to her young dancers, explaining patiently to her classically trained troupe the subtleties of traditional Chinese choreography.

"Does that make sense?" she said again and again as dancers of the Bluegrass Youth Ballet rehearsed for the original work, The Nightingale.

The Nightingale was written in 1844 by Hans Christian Andersen. It's the story of a Chinese emperor who becomes entranced with and then entraps a nightingale so he may enjoy her beautiful song. A mechanical nightingale is brought to the palace and soon finds favor and overshadows the natural bird until it breaks and can sing no more. A forlorn emperor seeks out the original nightingale, and they agree she will sing but only if let free.

From precise hand placements to the correct way to hold and move a fan, the cast of about 40 had to break out of their classical inclinations. One example? Even as they are supposed to be playing courtiers enjoying a show, they reflexively kept creating straight lines like a corps de ballet.

But entering into new territory is precisely why Corn opted to take on the challenge. The mission of her program, she said, is to provide cultural education.

Corn researched the Tang Dynasty to understand the lavish lifestyle of the emperor and reached out to several artists in Lexington's Chinese community to make the experience as authentic as possible.

Han Wang, a Chinese dancer who is now studying at the University of Kentucky, helped the two lead dancers learn their parts and helped the corps de ballet with a show-stopping fan dance.

"It is a new challenge for these young dancers to learn such a precise and intricate style of dancing," Corn says.

"It's been an amazing experience for them."

It also became a bit of a community effort.

Hong Shao, who has played the traditional Chinese lute, the Pipa, for more than a decade in Central Kentucky, provided the Chinese narration in the show.

David Goud, a former dancer with the Louisville Ballet, served as guest choreographer.

The Lexington Children's Theatre, which had performed a dramatic version of the story, helped with sets and costumes, notably the richly rendered ceremonial robe worn by David Cesler, as the emperor.

Corn says the ballet usually uses more than 120 dancers in a performance, so this makes The Nightingale "one of the smallest productions I have ever done, but it was one of the hardest."

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