In one the promotional images for COCA Dance Ensembles Winter concert entitled “Winter Rep: A Movement in Color,” there is a young woman on pointe with ballet shoes in a satin hue to match her brown skin. Her body extends far beyond the reach of her petite frame as a robe gracefully hangs from her left side.
The shoes are particularly striking, because normally girls of color wear ballerina shoes that are anything but a reflection of their melanin.
The image is the perfect illustration of what audiences can expect from the concert taking place this weekend (December 14-15) at Washington University’s Edison Theatre that celebrates the past and present contributions the African American experience within the art form of dance.
“We thought it would be fascinating to put together a program highlighting artists of color,” said Kirven Douthit-Boyd. “Representation is key, and the only way we can knock down stereotypes is if we put the black and brown girls out there in the space –not just because of their color, but because they can actually dance. It does something for another young lady who comes to the theater and sees someone that looks like them doing ballet, and it is so important to see.”
A renowned choreographer and former principal dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Kirven Douthit-Boyd co-directs COCA’s dance program along with his husband Antonio Douthit-Boyd, a St. Louis native, COCA and fellow Ailey alum.
“We come from a company like Ailey where we had dancers from all walks of life and all nationalities because he cared about people,” Antonio said. “We would be doing ourselves a disservice if we didn’t include every color on that stage.”
The performance, which takes place this weekend and features all three of the COCA Dance Ensembles – COCAdance, Ballet Eclectica and the COCA Hip-Hop Crew and will feature the artistry of Marcus Jarrell Willis, formerly with Alvin Ailey; Claudia Schreier, the award-winning artistic director of Claudia Schreier & Company; and Jeremy Green, St. Louis native commercial hip-hop dancer and choreographer and Kara Wilkes, a famed dancer known for her work with Alonzo King Lines Ballet.
A work will be performed with a St. Louis-based poet Jacqui Germain as well as pieces choreographed to the music of Scott Joplin, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and others.
“We just had our first technical rehearsal last night,” Kirven said. “I saw all of the technical elements come together and I just felt that that the experience is going to be so rich, so powerful and I would dare to say transformative. The audience might just forget that they are watching students.”
“Sometimes watching these children, we get blinded to the fact that they are children because they are rising to the occasion they are working with choreographers of the highest caliber and they are delivering performances on a professional level,” Antonio said. “They are definitely stepping up to the plate of professionalism. I can guarantee that these kids are rivaling any professional company in St. Louis.”
But the quality of these young dancers goes beyond mere mastery of movement.
“We’ve been bold in our work and I think that our students have risen to the occasion,” Kirven said. “They’ve been getting better and better every single year – and not just technically but also artistically in their ability to showcase and share and carry a narrative and a storyline. It’s been really exciting for us.”
As the couple marks five years of leading the program, they reflected on their tenure at COCA.
“It’s a testament to the power of the art of dance,” Kirven said. “For us, we feel like we have grown and developed as artists, educators and as human beings. Yes, the Ailey legacy is a huge part of our identity, but we have put so many layers on that by how much we’ve learned and developed since leaving Ailey. It’s amazing to watch that part of our legacy come to fruition through these young artists, but also we’ve learned so much that we are taking to it to the next level and we are really excited to see how it continues to develop and grow.
The experience of reaching back by way of the organization that gave him the skills and discipline to ascend to the pinnacle of his field has been dually rewarding for Antonio.
“I’m excited for people to see these kids and to see me personally come back to St. Louis and give back to the community,” Antonio said. “There is talent in this city that is homegrown that can come back to the city and produce in the same way we are doing at COCA. It shows what happens when we invest in ourselves and our people. Our community is that much richer and I’m just happy to be a part of that – and I’m happy to show people that I went away and came back [to give back].”
“Winter Rep: A Movement in Color” will take place on December 14 – December 15 at Washington University’s Edison Theatre, 6445 Forsyth Blvd. For a full schedule of performances and ticket information, visit https://www.cocastl.org or call (314) 561-4877.