Geordie Theatre takes on race, class and ballet in Reaching for Starlight - Geordie Theatre
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Geordie Theatre takes on race, class and ballet in Reaching for Starlight

The Montreal Gazette discusses Geordie’s latest Mainstage production Reaching for Starlight: “Director Mike Payette discusses the company’s ambitious adaptation of Kristy Dempsey’s illustrated book about an African-American girl and her dreams of ballet success.”

Read on The Montreal Gazette’s website: Geordie Theatre takes on race, class and ballet in Reaching for Starlight

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Geordie Theatre takes on race, class and ballet in Reaching for Starlight

Director Mike Payette discusses the company’s ambitious adaptation of Kristy Dempsey’s illustrated book about an African-American girl and her dreams of ballet success.

Centered on a young African-American girl with dreams of ballet glort, Reaching for Starlight “has these themes about wanting to be somebody greater than you are in spite of the circumstances you’re given,” says director Mike Payette, with actors Warona Setshwaelo, centre, and Bria McLaughlin. JOHN MAHONEY / MONTREAL GAZETTE

You could say the world of ballet, long regarded as the most diversity-resistant of art forms, has been taking baby steps toward inclusivity these days. One example is the recent story of a British company beginning a line of ballet shoes for dancers of colour. Meanwhile, here in Montreal, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens appointed its first black principal dancer, Vanesa Garcia-Ribala Montoya.

Undoubtedly, there’s still a long way to go, but it’s certain that things have improved since 1951. That’s the year in which Kristy Dempsey set her 2014 illustrated children’s book A Dance Like Starlight, which Geordie Theatre is bringing to the stage of the D.B. Clarke Theatre from April 26 to May 5. Renamed Reaching for Starlight, it will be the company’s biggest production to date.

Set in Harlem, the book revolves around an unnamed 11-year-old African-American girl, whose mother cleans and stitches for a ballet company. The girl watches the performances longingly from the wings, but despite being a naturally gifted dancer herself, her dreams of joining a ballet school are stymied by prejudice.

Although fictional, the book pays tribute to Janet Collins, the first African-American prima ballerina at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, whom the starstruck young girl watches in a legendary performance.

In a break during rehearsals, Geordie’s artistic director Mike Payette explains to the Montreal Gazette that he knew right away he wanted to create a show from the book when he took over the company in 2016: he used to read A Dance Like Starlight to his stepdaughter at bedtime.

“As well as the ballet content,” Payette says, “it has these themes about wanting to be somebody greater than you are in spite of the circumstances you’re given. All of these things were really compelling to me. Plus, of course, the fact that it’s coming from a young person’s perspective.”

Payette brought in playwright Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, a two-time Governor General’s Award nominee, to adapt the book — definitely a change of direction for the writer of Gas Girls, about truck-stop prostitutes, and the enormously powerful Black Lives Matter piece Sound of the Beast.

“Originally I thought, let’s do a straight-up adaptation,” says Payette, “but very quickly I decided I wanted to find a (more substantial) way to welcome Donna-Michelle into the TYA (theatre for young audiences) canon, into Geordie’s world. So now it takes place today, in a city that could very well be Montreal or New York or Toronto. Not setting it in the ’50s gives it more urgency. We’ve come a long way since the ’50s; we’re having different conversations about representation in the arts.”

(Payette has been central to that conversation in Montreal, with such productions as Choir Boy and Angélique. In the fall, he opens Théâtre Jean-Duceppe’s new season with A Raisin in the Sun, which, uncharacteristically for Montreal’s francophone theatre scene, features a predominantly black cast.)

The children’s book on which Reaching for Starlight us based was set in 1951, but Geordie Theatre’s adaptation “takes place today, in a city that could very well be Montreal or New York or Toronto,” says Mike Payette. “We’ve come a long way sine the ’50s; we’re having different conversations about representation in the arts.” JOHN MAHONEY / MONTREAL GAZETTE.

 

Although Payette admits he’s not particularly a ballet aficionado himself, what appealed to him about a story set in that world was the chance to create a show in which movement is at least as important as the spoken word.

“Whether you have a choreographer or are working with any particular dance form, the physical body is another language in itself,” says Payette. “The presence of the body illustrates or evolves the story where sometimes the spoken word cannot. That’s in a lot of the work I do.”

Inevitably, the example of Billy Elliot comes up, particularly given the fact that Payette and St. Bernard are focusing as much on class as on race. Another point of reference for Payette has been the high-energy burst of exuberance that is Strictly Ballroom. He has also found plenty of inspiration from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater company, a pioneering force in black modern dance.

One major change in the adaptation is that the girl (whom St. Bernard names Reenie), unlike her book counterpart, has made it into the world of formal ballet training — “because we know,” says Payette, “that nowadays she would be able to get into a ballet school.”

In St. Bernard’s version, Reenie and her fellow students are competing for a solo part in Stravinsky’s The Firebird, which Payette caught last year in a production by his show’s “unofficial consultants,” Les Grands Ballets Canadiens.

“Les Grands Ballets have really been awesome,” Payette enthuses. “They’ve been helping us get the jargon right. And they’re really receptive to this theme of immersing young people in the form, helping them relate to the arts. They know the impact it can have on young people and how that can foster the ability to grow out of some really difficult times, as it did for Vanesa (Garcia-Ribala Montoya), as it did for me in terms of how theatre helped me when I was super young.”

AT A GLANCE

Reaching for Starlight plays from Friday, April 26 to Sunday, May 5 at D.B. Clarke Theatre, 1455 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W. Tickets: $16 to $24. Call 514-845-9810 or visit geordie.ca.

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