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St. Joseph Dancers to Tackle Some of the Tough Issues

‘I want to give them a way to express their own struggles and issues . . . with integrity and feeling.’ --Sister Beth

Tonight, on the stage of Chapman College’s Memorial Hall, 65 girls will examine the dynamics of gang mentality, take a wry look at societal values and celebrate unity among the races--all in a language that transcends cultural barriers.

No, this isn’t a freshman sociobiology workshop. These substantive issues will be addressed not in words, but in the language of dance in a benefit performance by the St. Joseph Ballet Company, a Santa Ana-based corps of dancers ages 9 to 19 and directed by Sister Beth Burns.

The 5-year-old troupe, which provides access to the performing arts for low-income youths through dance training and public performances, recently received from the California Arts Council the highest ranking given any Orange County dance troupe.

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Tonight’s performance begins the troupe’s fall “Friends” campaign, an effort to raise $20,000 to cover operating costs and expand outreach programs. In addition to its regular dance classes, the company offers free after-school workshops at elementary, junior high and high schools in and around Santa Ana.

The program will feature “Street Games,” an examination of gang hostility; “Imagine,” a tribute to the ideal of dance; “Happy Together,” a celebration of unity among the races, and “Desires,” a piece that Sister Beth describes as “a satire on how people are lured by values (prevalent) in our society.”

“In my choreography, my motivation is to give meaty themes which the dancers can express through movement,” said Sister Beth, a Roman Catholic nun of the order of the Sisters of St. Joseph. “I want to give them a way to express their own struggles and issues . . . with integrity and feeling.”

Set to Scott Joplin rags, “Desires” follows the adventures of Innocence, danced by 12-year-old Flor de Liz Alzate, a Colombian immigrant. Innocence visits The Big City and confronts three characters: Have It All, Do It My Own Way, and Feels So Good. Basically, Sister Beth said, the three represent power, greed and self-indulgence, which prove to be a pretty tempting combination for young Innocence. The girl pursues and eventually possesses the trio but soon becomes so weighed down by their trappings that she ultimately rejects them.

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Dancing the role proved to be a powerful lesson for Alzate, Sister Beth said.

“We spent a lot of time talking about who gets famous. Do people get famous for being loving, kind or generous? Aren’t those values more important than having it all, doing it their own way and feeling good?

“At the end of it all, she took my hand and said, ‘I was born to do this.’ I tell you, I’m a happy woman knowing that a young person has been given the chance to express (herself). That’s freedom . . . (that) comes from having the discipline to develop the muscles and the line to say what you want with your body and your heart.”

With its theme of gang violence, “Street Games” uncovers an issue that many of the dancers confront daily, Sister Beth said. Research gave her the opportunity to discuss with her dancers “what separates groups of people . . . what makes us label each other and grow hostile.”

“I was interested in two questions: How does gang tension escalate, and is there any intervention possible in the snowballing effect of gang violence?

“We found that the only person gang members trust is an ex-gang member or a gang worker. And that’s the only thing that can reverse the escalation: the intervention of someone the gang members trust.” Accordingly, “Street Games” follows a gang worker as he tries to unify rival gangs through peaceful measures.

Set to joyful music from the Cirque du Soleil, “Imagine” pays tribute to dance with a visit from the Muse, the embodiment of the spirit of dance. “Happy Together,” with music performed by the Nylons, a popular a cappella group from Toronto, is a “celebratory dance . . . (that) really points to what our girls experience,” Sister Beth said.

“What I hope for our company is that there will be a unity between the spirit of dance and its expression. (Our dancers) are white, black, Hispanic. . . . from different economic backgrounds. And they really get along.

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“They’re not angels, they’re adolescents. But I rarely see such healthy relationships crossing age, economic and racial barriers.”

The St. Joseph Ballet will perform today in Memorial Hall at Chapman College, 333 N. Glassell St., Orange. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at the door. A public reception at 7:30 p.m. will be followed by the 8 p.m. performance. Information: (714) 541-8314.


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