Ballet Virginia recently launched a professional wing of its company. On February 28 and 29, the company will present “Diversity in Dance” in honor of Black History Month. Rebecca interviewed resident choreographer Lydia Roberts Coco and company member Leah Upchurch about the performances, their creative processes, and their backgrounds in dance.

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Interview Transcript:

Leah: No one should ever feel that they can't do something because they look different from the person next to them. This program should really be kind of like a push. You can do whatever you want to as long as you have a strong mind and you're willing to do anything, sacrifice anything.

Rebecca: That's Leah Upchurch, a company dancer with Ballet Virginia, a longtime training center for emerging dancers in Hampton Roads. They recently launched a professional wing of their company. This month, in honor of Black History Month, they're presenting performances titled “Diversity in Dance” at their space on 21st Street in Norfolk. Leah, along with choreographer-in-residence Lydia Roberts Coco, a former dancer with Alvin Ailey, spoke with me about the program.

Lydia: What I hope to do is really, really expose the struggles and spirituality and soulfulness of the African American community. I'm doing a gospel piece. There is another piece that is pretty much about the celebration of music and the soulfulness that we have and the love of dance. You'll hear some Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder...Earth, Wind & Fire, so that's a fun, upbeat, feel-good type of piece. I just really want everyone to just leave the theater feeling joyous, feeling happy, feeling inspired, feeling a sense of unity. I just really want to touch their souls.

Rebecca: Can you tell me a little bit about what the process is like for you personally when you choreograph pieces?

Lydia: It's different. Sometimes the music can inspire me. Sometimes a story may inspire me. Sometimes the dancers inspire me first. So it just depends. For me, I like to have all of the bodies present to choreograph and make the story work and I choreograph on the spot. Sometimes I, at home, I come up with the outline of the story and the choreography and get into the studio and piece it all together.

Rebecca: What made you both fall in love with dance? What made you decide to pursue it?

Leah: When I was about like two or so, my mom had brought home like a VHS tape of the New York City Ballet’s “The Nutcracker.” I just remember seeing the main character, Marie, and just being like, I have to be this person. I have to know what this girl is feeling. I have to know what that joy is.

Lydia: I knew at the age of four that that was the path that I wanted to take in life and there was nothing else that I ever wanted to do. My mother always laughed about this story. She said that I told her at a young age, I was probably about 8 or 9 years old, that I was gonna grow up, I was going to become a professional dancer, and that I was going to move to New York and that I would take her with me to live with me. So she always says, “Well, you became a professional dancer, but you never took me to New York to live.” (laughs)

Rebecca: In this weekend's performances, you can catch a glimpse of Ballet Virginia's rehearsal hall. They're turning it into a performance space for “Diversity in Dance,” hoping to welcome all members of the community for a dance event unlike any other.

Lydia: It's a very diverse program and I'm really hoping that we are able to bring in a lot more diversity with our audience as well, and I think it's important that everyone knows that we’re here, that I'm here. I'm a former Ailey dancer. Hopefully we'll be able to reach a different audience and know that ballet is not just for little white girls. Look at Leah. Look at myself. We are that story.

Rebecca: That was Lydia Roberts Coco and Leah Upchurch from Ballet Virginia. Catch “Diversity in Dance” at Ballet Virginia on West 21st Street in Norfolk, Friday, February 28 at 7:30 PM and then Saturday, February 29 at 2 PM and 7:30 PM.