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Keith Lee Dances: Former American Ballet Theatre soloist starts professional company

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  • 'Sycamore Park'

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    Elizabeth King and Veronica Hart (above) and Steffi Wells (below) rehearse "Sycamore Park," which will be part of Keith Lee Dances' debut performance.

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Posted: Wednesday, May 29, 2013 10:30 pm | Updated: 9:26 am, Thu Feb 6, 2014.

The action occurring inside Dance Theatre of Lynchburg’s main floor studio is chaotic.

Eight dancers, all members of the new professional troupe Keith Lee Dances, are rehearsing “Sycamore Park,” a piece that will be included in their upcoming premiere performance. They dance in the confined space — each doing something completely different, each outfitted in completely different, and over-the-top, costumes, to channel the real-life people they’re portraying.

Steffi Wells, who plays Nancy Sinatra in the piece, is sporting a mod lime green dress with knee-high white boots. Elizabeth King, as actress Loretta Young, wears a flowing, floor-length emerald gown. Amanda Deschano channels Charo in a sparkly black and gold flapper-style number, while Theo Coates is in full make-up as Emmett Kelly, one of the world’s most famous circus clowns. Then there’s Michael Webb, as 1930s cyclist James Moore, who rides around the dancers on a red bicycle.

There are mid-dance costume changes, and brief moments of collaboration, like when all of the female dancers line up and move in unison.

It may be chaos, but it’s of the controlled variety.

“There’s so much going on that if you look in a different direction than you did last time, it’ll be a whole different scene,” Coates says. “But that’s essentially what it’s supposed to be. … To think that if you walked into a real park, and this was going on? That would be amazing.”

John Williams, another member of the group, says the piece is about “those connections we make with people, and they don’t even know it. You can walk by someone on the street and do something that makes them smile.”

Keith Lee, founder of the new troupe, as well as Dance Theatre of Lynchburg, says he thought about what would go on in a real park — lots of people gathered, each doing their own thing — when he choreographed the piece. Some acknowledge each other, while others don’t.

“When you go to Central Park, when you first see the park, there are people you don’t recognize,” Lee says. “Then you visit again, and you come to know the people.”

As the roughly 25-minute dance progresses, “they all become intertwined,” he says. “By the end, they are all just having this great time together.”

“Sycamore Park” is part of Keith Lee Dances’ premiere performances, set for 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at The Academy of Fine Arts’ Warehouse Theatre.

Lee began assembling the group last fall.

“I felt we needed a professional company here in Lynchburg,” says the former American Ballet Theatre soloist, who founded Dance Theatre in 1999 after a lifetime of dancing and choreographing.

Growing up in New York’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, Lee began dancing at 3 years old and, as a teen, attended the High School for the Performing Arts.

At age 19, he started a seven-year stint with the American Ballet Theatre and later traveled the world as a freelance choreographer. He’s taught at Shenandoah University in Winchester, was artistic director at Capitol Ballet in Washington, D.C., and acted as ballet master at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the Dallas Black Dance Theatre and Nanette Bearden’s Contemporary Chamber Dance Company, among others.

“His repertoire is so extensive,” says Keith Lee Dances member Veronica Hart, a 2002 graduate of Virginia School of the Arts. “He has created so much.”

Hart began working with Lee not long after she graduated from VSA. She went on to dance with companies in Charleston, S.C., and San Francisco before moving back to the area to join Charlottesville Ballet for two seasons.

She started her own company, Concordance Contemporary, in Charlottesville this year, but still jumped at the chance to work with Lee again when he came calling.

“I love his work. It definitely pushes me harder than anything I’ve done, emotionally or physically,” she says. “He has a way of artistically pushing you without telling you what to do. He loves, I think, when a dancer brings their soul into something. You have to be willing to be vulnerable. It’s an incredible experience, getting to that place where he trusts you.

“Plus, he’s hilarious,” she adds. “You never know what to expect from him.”

Hart’s story is not unique among the dancers involved in the project. They all come from different dance backgrounds. Some are former Dance Theatre or VSA students who have known Lee for years. Others met him later in life, after moving to the area.

But they all had what Lee says he was looking for — dramatic flair and good technique.

Keeping the group small also was important to him.

“I didn’t want to fill the studio,” he says. “I really want them to work. Having nine members really gives them an opportunity to dance.”

For now, it’s a part-time gig for the dancers, who all still have day jobs (some with other professional dance companies) and meet with Lee for rehearsal twice a week.

“My dream was to become a professional dancer, and [now] I have the opportunity to do it in-house,” says 2005 Heritage High School grad Amanda Deschano, who began taking classes at Dance Theatre when she was in seventh grade and returned after high school to teach for its Young Dancer Program.

“I want to see how the community is going to respond to us. We have put a lot of work into it.”

After this weekend’s performances, Lee says the group will tour around the state, thanks to a Virginia Commission for the Arts grant. They may incorporate some new choreography into their repertoire over the summer, but Lee says their next local performance introducing new work won’t be until a holiday showcase later in the year.

Most of the work they’re doing in this show is modern, which gave Kirsten Glaser pause when Lee approached her about joining the group.

“I was really nervous, actually, because this is not my [style of dance],” says the former Charlottesville Ballet dancer. “If you ask anyone, they will say I’m a bunhead. I like the fact that I got to experience something different.

Working with Lee, she says, “is fun. He’s really passionate about his work, which makes you very passionate, even if you don’t know what’s going on at first.”

Like when Lee first started staging “Sycamore Park.” At first, he didn’t tell any of the dancers that they’d be portraying famous people.

“I didn’t want them to know what the piece was about,” he says.

Instead, “I gave them a feeling. I put them in these situations without really telling them exactly who they were. … I wanted honestly. I didn’t want anyone to mug it. I didn’t want any cheese.”

After working on the choreography for a few months, he finally told them what was really going on.

“I thought it was so fascinating for them to realize who they were,” he says. “Then to get back to basics and learn about who those characters were [through] investigation and character study. It really goes beyond technique.”

Williams says that is often the case with Lee’s work.

“I love how human it can be,” he says. “He’s always trying to get us to go to a deeper place within ourselves. That’s really nice as an audience member [too], to really be able to connect with a dancer on more than just a visual level.”


Keith Lee Dances' premiere performances are set for 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at The Academy of Fine Arts’ Warehouse Theatre. Tickets are $25 for reserved seating and admission to an opening night reception, $12 for adults and $10 for students and seniors. Call (434) 846-6272 or visit www.dancelynchburg.org for more information.

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