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Putting It Together

Amid Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, Aurora Celebrates Its Anniversary

Five Years Old and Rising: Aurora Dance Company is gearing up, hastily, for its anniversary shows June 22 and 23.

By D.C. Culbertson | Posted 6/21/2000

When a dance company is about ready to celebrate a milestone, one would think that its director would be deeply involved in preparations for it. And one might think that there would be plenty of company members available to participate in its anniversary show. But that's not the case with the six-member, Columbia-based Aurora Dance Company, which is about to celebrate its fifth anniversary with a special concert, Works in Progress: A Fifth Anniversary Spectacular, at Aurora's home base of Howard Community College's Smith Theatre on June 22 and 23.

Company founder and artistic director Dawn Cooper Barnes has spent the past year on sabbatical in her native Liberia and won't be back in Maryland until June 19. And when she does come back, she'll have a new piece for the company to learn and perform in the show. On top of that, a guest company that was supposed to figure prominently in the final piece had to cancel its appearance at the last minute. And Aurora founding member and publicity director Ellyne Brown Downs is pregnant and unable to perform in the show.

Somehow, none of this seems to be fazing either Downs or Aurora general manager Johnette Henderson too much. "We're used to doing stuff like that--putting things together at the last minute," Downs says. And Henderson, who describes herself as deeply religious, says, "I've always known there's nothing I couldn't do without the grace of God."

Interestingly enough, none of the pieces slated for Works in Progress specifically relate to Aurora's anniversary. Instead of commenting directly on the company's history, Henderson says, she simply wanted "to create a concert that's challenging yet fulfilling. . . . [I] wanted to make pieces that were uplifting."

Four of the six pieces to be performed at the concert are by Henderson, and all but one are premieres. She describes "Pathway to Freedom" as "a spiritual suite--it's about slavery." But it also deals with the concept of baptism as the freeing of a person's soul. She describes another piece, "He Still Lives," as "just really pretty movement . . . about Jesus and how He still lives." It is set to selections from the soundtrack of the movie The Piano. And in "Fusion," which Henderson considers "my best work," two duos move to two completely different pieces of music that eventually converge.

"Fields of Ice," which premiered April 30 during an Aurora concert at Smith Theatre, was inspired by a most unusual source--a massive ice storm. Suffering from cabin fever, Henderson went for a walk around her Fulton neighborhood and was struck by the beauty of the ice-covered trees. She was also struck by the sound the ice made: "I kept hearing the ice fall, and it made this really happy noise." Composer Paul Mezzanotti created a score for it that Henderson says sounded "like ice breaking and dripping--I don't know how he did it," and the choreographer blended it with a track from the best-selling Pure Moods New Age anthology.

Since its founding by Barnes in 1995, Aurora has combined her interest in both modern and traditional African dance. Barnes' new piece, "Homecoming," which will conclude Works in Progress, will begin with a slide show of Africa, then a solo by Barnes. A section of improvisational African-style dance follows, and it's become a tradition for company members to end their concerts by inviting the audience up on stage to dance with them.

Aurora has recruited the Balathon Women, a group from Washington, to perform the improv dance section of "Homecoming." Originally, that section of the piece was supposed to be performed by Sankofa Djinn, a 20-member ensemble of singers and dancers from the Ivory Coast. Unfortunately, the group's appearance had to be canceled--due, Henderson says, to problems securing visas for the troupe--about which Aurora members didn't learn until the first week in June.

Company member Allison Hicks--who joined Aurora in September 1995, shortly after the company's founding, and started choreographing about two years ago--will premiere a piece at the anniversary show, "Beat of the Drum." Henderson says "Beat" was inspired by two of Hicks' interests: hip-hop and Native American culture.

Despite all the difficulties involved in putting Works in Progress together, Downs and Henderson have no regrets and are eagerly looking forward to the performance. "It was very exciting and also very time-consuming and tiring too--all of those things rolled up in one," Downs says. Henderson adds, "It was a little frightening at first, but we met the challenge head-on." Still, she is looking forward to the show finally going on. "When the 24th is here, I'm probably going to sleep all day!"

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