When artistic director Kevin Thomas and executive director Marcellus D. Harper founded Collage Dance Collective in 2006 in New York City, they sought to push the boundaries of classical ballet and foster and promote the talents of artists of color. In 2007, the company relocated to Memphis during a period of the city's "artistic renaissance" and as part of a mission to extend classical ballet training to a wider and more diverse audience.
That same year also marked the company's first performances at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. This week, Collage Dance Collective returns to the Pillow, performing at the festival's Inside/Out stage on Thursday, August 10. (Thomas will also teach an open ballet class; click here for more info.)
The Pillow has special significance for Thomas; he performed at the festival as a dancer with Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1997 and attended The School at Jacob's Pillow summer intensive in 1985. "It was the best summer of my life," he says. "I met so many people and saw many performances like David Parson's Caught and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. We lived in cabins planted in the woods. The connection of art and nature was wonderful." He shared his cabin with a young Nikolaj Hübbe, now director of The Royal Danish Ballet.
That summer Thomas also saw his "first black ballerina," Yolonda Jordan, a former San Francisco Ballet and Ballet Austin dancer then performing with Festival Dance Theatre. "She was stunning," Thomas recalls, "and many years later I got a chance to dance with her."
This week Collage will be bringing four works to the Inside/Out stage. Two pieces are by Darrell Grand Moultrie: Lineage ("a perfect opener to introduce our dancers and their dynamic personalities," says Thomas) and Beyond The Veil ("a haunting male solo that showcases a young Black man's emotions/frustrations with being Black in America through the use of strong movement quality and ballet technique"). The program also featuresTestament, a pas de deux by Dwight Rhoden, and Wash, choreographed by recent Princess Grace Award Winner Joshua Manculich. This piece artfully combines ballet, contemporary and even water in one piece.
The biggest challenge in preparing for this outdoor performance has been the lack of lighting, Thomas explains. The lighting design and haze are such an integral player in Wash, but instead the Berkshire trees, valleys and mountains will form the backdrop this week.
When asked what audiences should expect when seeing the company Thomas replied, "They will see classically-trained dancers with beautiful lines who are lyrical, powerful movers and who are all of color."