HOPE AND GLORY : St. Joseph Ballet Puts Faith in the Inner-City First, Fame Second in 'The Sky in My Soul'

Chris Pasles covers music and dance for The Times Orange County Edition.

Only a few of the Santa Ana-based St. Joseph Ballet dancers have gone on to win scholar ships or participate in programs offered by such choreographers as Bill T. Jones and Eliot Feld. But training kids for professional dance careers is not company artistic director Beth Burns' top priority.

"That's not the measure of what we've accomplished in 10 years," Burns says. "A lot of what we do should be seen in terms of how to pull together as a community to heal ourselves.

"The recent tragedy in Los Angeles is a very chilling reminder of how important it is to offer guidance, empowerment and, most of all, hope for inner-city youth."

The company will dance its spring concert, "The Sky in My Soul," today through Sunday at Rancho Santiago College in Santa Ana. About 180 dancers will participate in the three works on the program, choreographed by company founder and director Burns.

The opener, "Joy," draws upon 111 "very hopeful children," ages 9 to 13, Burns says. The work is set to a song, "Bring Me Joy," by jazz singer Dianne Reeves. The song "refers to children and dancing for the love of life," Burns says.

"It's really fun to put on a piece even with beginning students that reflects on a deeper level what dance is giving them and what dance gives them all--more life in our life."

The second work, "Transfiguration," is for 11 dancers, ages 13 to 17, and set to music by Polish composer Arvo Part. The dance is about "living and working in the inner-city."

"I started reflecting on the faith of people who struggle to overcome huge odds just to carry on each day," Burns says. "I kept asking myself, 'What do people do when suffering attempts to overwhelm the meaning of your life?' To me, people who are confronted with suffering that confounds your every sense and still have faith and hope, I feel that that kind of faith and hope are very compelling."

The second half of the program is devoted to a single work, "La Energia de la Vida," which will be accompanied live by Poncho Sanchez and his Latin jazz band.

The work is for 64 dancers and "it's a lot of fun," Burns says. "At the end, the kids are going into the audience to ask people to stand up, and all of us are going to be dancing."

Burns formed the troupe in 1983 on a grant from the Ahmanson Foundation to offer free dance lessons to inner-city youth. She began with 24 kids and worked in the basement of a small church for the next six years. In 1988, however, the company was able to move to a classy 4,000-square-foot studio facility in Santa Ana.

In 1990, she held a three-pronged competition in which young writers, composers and scenic design artists vied to create a new ballet choreographed by Burns. It was premiered last May.

Altogether, more than 18,500 youngsters have participated in the training program. Last August, the troupe was named the 525th "Daily Point of Light" by President Bush.

What: St. Joseph Ballet's spring concert, "The Sky in My Soul."

When: Thursday, May 28, and Friday, May 29, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, May 30, at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday, May 31, at 2 p.m.

Where: Phillips Hall Theatre at Rancho Santiago College, 1530 W. 17th St., Santa Ana.

Whereabouts: Take 17th Street exit from the Santa Ana (5) Freeway and go west to Bristol Street. Turn left and enter the college parking area on the right. The theater is in the arts complex on the Bristol side of the college.

Wherewithal: $5 to $8.

Where to call: (714) 541-8314.

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