Zane Booker

A vision resurrected

Choreographer Zane Booker puts his own spin on Faust as part of PHILADANCO‘s new spring program.

By Naila Francis

It was in 1999 that Zane Booker first fell in love with the story.

Dancing the role of Mephistopheles in a production of Faust with the New National Theatre, Tokyo, he was entranced by the tale of a protagonist who makes a pact with the Devil in exchange for knowledge.

Now, a decade later, the Philadelphia choreographer is bringing his own version of the German legend to the stage as one of three duets featured in “The Red Envelope,” a commissioned work for PHILADANCO‘s spring program, “New Faces: Choreographers for the Future,” opening Thursday at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.

Booker, who at 14 began his career with the world-renowned dance company, is one of four emerging choreographers — along with Camille A. Brown, Hope Boykin and Tony Powell — whose talents will be spotlighted in three world premieres and a Philadelphia premiere that build on PHILADANCO‘s tradition of African-American inspired movement, ballet, jazz and modern styles.

With “The Red Envelope” being his second commission for the company — he premiered “In Between Time,” set to the music of Chuck Mangione, at the 2007 spring performance at the Kimmel — Booker says there’s a sense of coming full circle in creating a piece for the troupe that launched his performing career.

“It’s an honor. I always feel like I’m home when I’m there,” he says.

“The Red Envelope” — the title serves as a thematic symbol of the announcement of a new fate — is in some ways a throwback to the company’s older days when pieces were created more for duets and trios than the larger ensembles of eight to nine dancers typically onstage now.

Beyond fostering a trust that isn’t always innately there, such intimacy allows for a greater focus between choreographer and dancers.

“I like it because you can get into a real intense creative period,” says Booker. “Once you achieve that level of focus, then the magic is allowed to come into the room.”

The duets are broken into three themes exploring Faust, death and the afterlife, with an original composition by Philadelphia musician Jeff Story serving as the initial inspiration.

When Booker heard that piece of music, the impressions from Faust that had been intermittently stirring in his mind ever since 1999 suddenly crystallized into an image of the Devil and a woman who challenges him even as he tries to conquer her.

“The first piece is based on literature. It’s the story of Faust or at least is inspired by the story of Faust and that whole question of what is your price and how does it affect your life when you make choices that compromise your integrity on a huge scale,” says Booker, who, after years of dancing with companies around the world, in 2006 founded his own dance theater company, the Smoke, Lilies and Jade Arts Initiative, to create socially and politically conscious works. “It’s always interesting to me to create good versus evil scenarios.

“I hope that people think about greed in the Faust story — especially living in a period of time when we are in an excess of greed — and what being tempted to have that kind of wealth or power really brings out in us.”

The second duet looks at death with the announcement of a soldier killed in the war, and how her two sisters, one of them having struggled with a sense of foreboding, react to the news. The third looks at crossing over to another dimension after death.

“I think that death is a beautiful thing, but it’s a very frightful thing, so it comes up a lot in my work,” says Booker. “There’s been a lot of death in my family … and when I was 14, it was about the time that the AIDS scare had kind of hit and there are a lot of people that aren’t alive anymore, so even being in the PHILADANCO studio, I’m constantly reminded of life and death and people who were here and now they’re gone.”

He in fact started SLJ primarily to promote HIV/AIDS awareness and sift through experiences of the African-American LGBT community, while his commissions tend to explore aspects of literature and mythology in the vein of classical ballet. SLJ usually breaks with the movement that many have come to identify as his style, but every piece he choreographs draws on what he calls a “hybrid style with classical legs and a modern torso.”

“It’s a very fluid torso and very classical trained arms and legs and the ability to move quickly and to hit lines and techniques but in a fluid and dynamic way,” he says. “I’m also really influenced by the choreographers that I spent a lot of time with like Jiri Kylian (director of the Netherlands Dance Theater) and Jean Christophe Maillot (director of Les Ballets de Monte Carlo).”

For Booker, dancing has always been a cathartic, meditative experience, the sheer physicality of it and the concentration that’s required often elevating it to a spiritual practice. It’s an awareness he brings to his role as a choreographer, no matter the company with which he’s working.

“I’d like to get to a point where I channel the dances, where I’m so connected to my body, so connected to the music, so connected to everyone in the room, that’s it a cathartic experience for them, too,” he says. “That’s what I remember about being a dancer — it was about being a vessel for the choreographer.”

– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer