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The princess and the premiere 

When local arts booster Penelope Bridgers gets the creative urge, she thinks big. And as the mind behind Luyala, a one-of-a-kind performance premiering next week, she is giving new meaning to collaboration. In fact, the African-themed Luyala is neither a dance nor an opera. It's both: a dance-opera. According to Bridgers, the hybrid is "not just an opera with a little bit of dance or dance with some singing," but something more.

The dance part of the formula comes from the African American Dance Ensemble and community dancers, under the tutelage of Chuck Davis, whose choreographic prowess and propensity to make people get up and dance are legendary. The musical score was written by William Banfield, an African-American composer and professor, and is performed by Triangle Opera.

So who's responsible for this meeting of the minds? "It's really Chuck and his reputation that have brought all these incredibly talented people together," says Bridgers. At a recent rehearsal, Bridgers and Davis looked like an odd couple. Bridgers is a petite woman whose soft voice and tailored appearance bear remnants of years spent in Britain. Davis towered over her, spoke commandingly, and wore an inside-out navy sweatshirt with magenta-and-orange embroidered African pants.

Yet Bridgers' and Davis' different backgrounds and styles physically represent what they're trying to do: to meld disparate art forms into a compelling whole. African dance and opera seem incongruous, but to Penelope Bridgers, they fell together.

"The idea was born here in the Durham Arts Council. Years ago, the African American Dance Ensemble and Triangle Opera shared an office. I thought, wouldn't it be great to collaborate, but what? What would do justice to both art forms? It would have to be a created piece," says Bridgers. "And the best way to bring the story out was to use dance--something that is very traditionally African--with a European art form."

Eight years ago, Bridgers heard an East African folktale in Greenville, N.C. The story followed an arrogant young princess who lost her hair because of an act of unkindness. In order to regain both her locks and her dignity, she must find someone to outwit the gods or prove her worthiness. "The King's Daughter Who Lost Her Hair" planted a seed in Bridgers' mind. It had many elements of good drama: the abuse of power, family dysfunction, fantastic figures like poison takers, and spirits that reward kindness or punish folly.

But what makes Luyala so interesting is Bridgers' "double casting." Dancers will convey actions through motion, and the singers will reveal inner struggles. For every character with a voice, there are two cast members. For instance, in scenes featuring Luyala's dead mother, the queen will be danced by an Ensemble member, but her voice will come from Nnenna Freelon's heavenly throat. The ghostly presence of Luyala's mother and a bird-spirit named Mayimbi highlight one of the major themes in the dance-opera: The external and the internal are not the same and must be reconciled for a happy life. "For Luyala," says Bridgers, "everything is external. She is hollow." By the end of the dance-opera, however, Luyala has developed "understanding eyes. She has filled up."

Because of its ambitious nature, Luyala has had to balance both the interplay between dancers and singers, and cooperation between arts institutions. With all these components, Bridgers says that this huge collaboration, almost five years in the making, is like "trying to dramatize Aida and Swan Lake at the same time."

Luyala has already succeeded in the complicated arena of financial backing. With its innovative concept and array of talent, the dance-opera won uncommonly generous support in this age of declining arts funding. The National Endowment for the Arts funded it on three occasions, with a grant to the Ensemble, one to Triangle Opera, and another to the Duke Artists series.

As far as productions like this go, Bridgers ranks Luyala as small-budget, in the low six figures. "But something like this can be done and done well," she says. And will Luyala go on the road or Bridgers take on another epic project? The first depends on the response and funding, but the latter depends on Bridgers, who claims, "Characters speak to me, I just take dictation."

Now let's hope Luyala speaks to Triangle audiences. EndBlock

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