Dancers Marlene Desiree Watts, Dana Thomas, Frances Barker in Amahl and the Night Visitors

Pavel Antonov, Courtesy On Site Opera

What It Takes to Choreograph an Opera in a Soup Kitchen

During the holidays, many Americans make a tradition out of volunteering in a soup kitchen. But there's a group of artists taking this idea one step further: They're putting on an opera in a soup kitchen.

New York City's On Site Opera, known for staging works in non-traditional spaces, is presenting Amahl and the Night Visitors next month inside the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen, which serves lunch to the homeless every weekday. The one-act opera recounts the story of the three wise men from the point of view of a young disabled boy who lives in poverty with his mother in Bethlehem.

"We use the story as a way to address homelessness in the city," says choreographer Winston A. Benons Jr.

Not only does the audience sit at the same round tables that the soup kitchen uses to serve its weekday meals, but the chorus that performs alongside the professional opera soloists is made up of amateur singers who have all experienced homelessness themselves. The show is put on in partnership with Breaking Ground, which provides permanent supportive housing for the homeless.

Benons was brought on by On Site's director Eric Einhorn to reenvision the opera's "ballet" section where townspeople perform for the three kings. It traditionally features either classical ballet or a European folk dance, but Einhorn wanted a new take.

So Benons mined his background in both Afro-diasporic dance (particularly from Cuba, Haiti and Brazil) and modern forms, but also added something more: "The LGBT community experiences a lot of homelessness—young people who are kicked out or have to leave town come to New York and don't have a permanent residence. But that's not often part of the homeless discussion, so I brought that into the dance by fusing vogue into the choreography," he says.

For last year's premiere, he hired a young voguer from the community to perform, and gave him a few solo moments. (Although Benons searched for a voguer this year, none worked out, so he hired a professional dancer with voguing experience.)

A woman eagerly leans forward while a young boy looks on, a cot sitting nearby.

On Site Opera's Amahl and the Night Visitors

Pavel Antonov, Courtesy On Site Opera

For audience members, Benons hopes the work encourages them to think about homelessness with a new kind of empathy. "Especially in New York, we see so much homelessness, but we have blinders on. To protect yourself, you can't engage too much. It's easy to go through our lives not taking a moment to think about it or to connect."

He says that talking with members of the chorus has made him think more deeply about how homelessness happens. "This person was from corporate America, this one was a singer, this one was in health care. You realize what one shift in your life could do."

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Clockwise from top left: Photo by Loreto Jamlig, Courtesy Ladies of Hip-Hop; Wikimedia Commons; Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet; Natasha Razina, Courtesy State Academic Mariinsky Theatre; Photo by Will Mayer for Better Half Productions, Courtesy ABT

The 10 Biggest Dance Stories of 2019

What were the dance moments that defined 2019? The stories that kept us talking, week after week? According to our top-clicked articles of the year, they ranged from explorations of dance medicine and dance history, takedowns of Lara Spencer and companies who still charge dancers to audition, and, of course, our list of expert tips on how to succeed in dance today.

We compiled our 10 biggest hits of the year, and broke down why we think they struck a chord:

Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Nichols

I Am a Black Dancer Who Was Dressed Up in Blackface to Perform in La Bayadère

On Instagram this week, Misty Copeland reposted a picture of two Russian ballerinas covered head to toe in black, exposing the Bolshoi's practice of using blackface in the classical ballet La Bayadère. The post has already received over 60,000 likes and 2,000 comments, starting a long overdue conversation.

Comments have been pouring in from every angle imaginable: from history lessons on black face, to people outside of the ballet world expressing disbelief that this happens in 2019, to castigations of Copeland for exposing these young girls to the line of fire for what is ultimately the Bolshoi's costuming choice, to the accusations that the girls—no matter their cultural competence—should have known better.

I am a black dancer, and in 2003, when I was 11 years old, I was dressed up in blackface to perform in the Mariinsky Ballet's production of La Bayadère.


Here's the First Trailer for the "In the Heights" Movie

Lights up on Washington Heights—because the trailer for the movie adaptation of the hit Broadway musical In the Heights has arrived. It's our first look into Lin-Manuel Miranda's latest venture into film—because LMM isn't stopping at three Tony awards, a Grammy award, and an Emmy.

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