- Associated Press - Saturday, June 13, 2015

ROCKFORD, Ill. (AP) - Playing the lead in “Swan Lake” or “Giselle” is a dream role for many professional ballet dancers.

But for Wayland Anderson, Rockford Dance Company’s artistic director, that dream role came true as a principal in “Off the Wall & Onto the Stage,” a production with South Carolina-based Columbia City Ballet.

“I used to want the same roles as other dancers,” he said, “but as I went along in my career, I realized that this production offered that pinnacle role for me.”

Anderson, 38, started dancing when he was 18, inspired by seeing Lauren Anderson, a black ballerina, on the cover of Dance magazine.

“For me to see that she was working onstage, in her craft - being paid - was a really big deal.”

Anderson became a member of Columbia City in 2007, but it wasn’t until recently that he rejoined the cast of “Off the Wall” for an April 11 performance at the Harris Theater in Chicago, accompanied onstage by some of his RDC students.

“This performance isn’t really about me,” he said. “It’s more about the students. This is a great opportunity for them.”

“Off the Wall,” in its 10th year of touring, brings to life the vibrant art of painter Jonathan Green, a concept created by Columbia City director and choreographer William Starrett.

They met in 2002. “Mr. Green told me the stories behind all of the paintings and where his inspiration came from,” Starrett said. “He saw his childhood through such beautiful eyes and memory. Family outings, church, the gorgeous coastline. Jonathan just saw it so colorfully.”

Green, who grew up in Gardens Corners, South Carolina, in the 1960s, has vivid memories of the area’s historical Gullah community - a group of descendants of slaves who were brought from west and central Africa - and identifies closely with its culture.

“What I love most about Gullah culture is its extension of West African culture,” he said. “I like the cuisine, I like the music. But more than anything, we didn’t see color. … We were always an integrated community.”

“The Gullah culture, and slavery in a sense, was a forced melting pot,” Starrett said. “What was supposed to be positive that came from this horrible war and slavery? Once slaves were given their freedom, we could celebrate their extreme culture - the positivity through the oppression. The ballet is really about freedom and uniting people. It was beautiful on stage, and that’s how the world should be.”

“Off the Wall” begins as a massive scrim of Green’s painting “Sea Swing” slowly reveals the same scene onstage: a girl in a yellow dress swinging gracefully to the tune of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Other dance numbers portray a boozy dance hall humming with the seductive sound of “At Last,” and a church choir shouting the praises of “Oh Happy Day.”

“My grandfather made moonshine, my mother is an ordained minister, and my grandmother ran a juke joint, like the one in the last scene of ‘Off the Wall’,” Green said. “All of the scenes are depicting people that I knew, my family and friends.”

In one particularly poignant number for Anderson, “My Brother, Your Brother,” he engages in a physical struggle with his white dance partner to the words of a sermon by the Rev. Willis Goodwin.

Moments like this is what make “Off the Wall” a “revolutionary” work of art for Green.

“What I’m most proud of is that (Columbia City Ballet) is one of the most integrated dance companies in the country. In some ways, in dealing with the past, this company is doing exactly that by having an integrated company.”

“I think William uses the ballet as a way for us to connect historical issues with modern-day issues,” Anderson said. “Regardless of being different in appearance, we’re all the same. We’re all brothers. That’s so important for my students to understand.”


Source: Rockford Register Star, https://bit.ly/1elKcTP


Information from: Rockford Register Star, https://www.rrstar.com

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