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Local and international performers use dance as a vehicle for cultural representation

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On a quiet side street behind the Montana Club, a nondescript sheet metal building houses the Ballet Beyond Borders rehearsal space. Inside, the pounding of slippered feet rumble through the building in step with traditional Chinese folk music. The dancers move with grace and intensity, maintaining a firm grip on their flowing crimson ribbons. They move like pros, but they’re just kids. 

Jenifer Kerber, the assistant artistic director, rallies the group after a performance of “Red Ribbon Dance.” There is some confusion amongst the dancers about how the ribbon should be twirled. The performance is the next day. This final rehearsal is designed to crease out any kinks before they hit the stage. 

She makes the executive decision to have sharper slashes with the arm holding the ribbon, creating a figure-8 pattern. 

The Ballet Beyond Borders troupe performed Sunday at the Missoula Community Theatre in celebration of the Chinese New Year. Founder and artistic director Charlene Campbell Carey started Ballet Beyond Borders five years ago to act as the international arm of Rocky Mountain Ballet. The mission of the troupe is to use dance as a vehicle for cultural representation. 

“These borders have all melted together perfectly,” Carey said during a break in the show. 

Sunday’s performance was designed to show the marriage of Western and Chinese cultures through a combination of modern, ballet and traditional Chinese folk dances to celebrate the Year of the Rat.

Ballet Beyond Borders has participated in numerous performances in China with help from Confucius Institute director Suhan Chen. Due to the rapid spread of the coronavirus, Chen was unable to attend the performance, but did kick off the show in a video message. Clad in a surgical mask, she thanked members of the audience for their continued support. 

“Love and hope spread faster than the virus,” Chen said. 

The dancers were joined by local choir Dolce Canto, who performed three lively songs after the opening dance number. Yong Mao, the conductor of the choir, echoed Chen’s message before their performance. 

“We have to do whatever it takes to fight the invisible,” Mao said. “The best thing to do is stay calm and reach out to our friends.” 

Backstage before the show was a flurry of movement. Younger members of the troupe were jumping and stretching in the long grey hallway, happily chatting about the upcoming performance. Some have nerves, others can’t wait to get on stage. 

Dancer Piper Leistiko, a Missoula native, has been with Rocky Mountain Ballet since she was 8 years old, and loves to perform. 

“It’s art to me. It’s a way for me to express myself,” Leistiko said. “I don’t know where I’d be without it.” 

Ballet Beyond Borders travels all over the world to perform, learning new dances from wherever they visit. The company also attracts dancers from across the globe.

Julia Duarte has been traveling from her home in Sao Paulo, Brazil, to dance with the troupe for the past three years. Thanks to her involvement with the company, she was accepted into the University of Montana School of Theatre and Dance for the Fall semester. 

“[Ballet Beyond Borders] is amazing because you get to know so many people,” Duarte said. “Everyone is united by art.” 

Kerber, who performed for Rocky Mountain Ballet, is now on faculty with the company. Having danced across the world, with numerous performances in China, she sees this opportunity as unique. Each dance has a story to tell. 

One such dance with a historic background is “White Haired Girl.” This piece, which is a small portion of a larger ballet, was one of two ballets that were allowed to be performed in China during the Cultural Revolution. This portion of the ballet tells the story of a young girl wandering through a snowy wood waiting for her father to come home from war.

“In the U.S. we don’t really have that. The Chinese preserve parts of their culture in dance,” Kerber said. 

She stressed the importance of Montana’s relationship with China. The show was put on in conjunction with the Confucius Institute, which used to operate from the Mansfield library until it was shuttered last May. For now, Ballet Beyond Borders is acting like a bridge for the Institute, keeping the cultural connection alive. 

The company had plans to travel to China to perform in March, but until the coronavirus is contained they will be postponing their trip.