October 08, 2007

Religion takes center stage with Mississippi ballet company

JACKSON, Miss. - Instead of heading off to college after high-school graduation, Elizabeth Kraft left her Northern Virginia home for a small dance studio in Mississippi.

She had long aspired to dance professionally. But after enrolling in various programs, Kraft said, she found the competitive world of dance to be “cutthroat.” She even considered giving it up.

“The Lord showed me that without dance in my life,” the 19-year-old said, “it would be kind of empty.”

She and other dancers from around the world were drawn to Ballet Magnificat!, a nondenominational Christian ballet company that combines classical dance instruction, family-friendly material and a mission to share the Christian faith. It’s part of a trend incorporating dance and other creative arts into religious expression, scholars say.

Kraft is a member of the Jackson-based company’s trainee program, where dancers are schooled in classical ballet and get to participate in Christian-themed performances.

A fellow trainee, Hanna Nagel, 22, traveled from Germany to join after dancing in secular companies in her native country. Nagel said she found her religious beliefs interfered with some of the provocative subject matter portrayed on stage. She knew there had to be a place where her spiritual side could exist with her passion for dancing.

Ballet Magnificat!’s building is unassuming from the outside. But with four dance studios and a school of arts that teaches about 400, the narrow hallways are abuzz. Music echoes through the sweltering studios, the temperatures suiting dancers’ need for warm muscles.

The company was founded in 1986 by Kathy Thibodeaux, a silver medalist at the II USA International Ballet Competition, held in Jackson every four years.

Her performance to the contemporary Christian classic “We Shall Behold Him” was “sort of the seed that started out as Ballet Magnificat!,” said Keith Thibodeaux, Kathy’s husband and executive director of the business.

Keith Thibodeaux is no stranger to performing. Though not trained in ballet, he plays the drums, a talent that earned him a gig as Little Ricky, the TV son of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz on “I Love Lucy.”

Kathy Thibodeaux said most of the company’s performances are biblically based stories put to dance with contemporary Christian and classical music.

“We use the same dance vocabulary that we were brought up in. We just sell a different message,” she said.

What started as a four-person ballet company has grown to two professional touring companies - Alpha and Omega - and 31 trainees. They attend classes five days a week in preparation for ministries in the touring companies as well as other mission work.

“Our desire is that it will magnify the Lord in all that we do. Dancing is just a gift that the Lord gave us,” Kathy Thibodeaux said.

Members of the Alpha Company spent the beginning of September on a European tour that took them to Germany, Greece and the Czech Republic. Alpha is performing “Ruth,” a contemporary spin on the biblical story.

The group says it has not faced much resistance in performing Christian-themed productions.

“We really get to go where the normal crews of church pastors or evangelists are not able to go to,” Keith Thibodeaux said. He believes the performances attract people who enjoy ballet - as well as people who’ve never seen ballet but attend because the group is Christian.

Cynthia Newland, assistant professor of dance at Christian liberal-arts school Belhaven College in Jackson, said Christian dance found a place in the “Jesus Movement” of the 1960s and grew.

Along with dance, other creative arts such as painting and poetry reading are joining more traditional expressions like music and drama in worship settings.

“I’ve in particular seen much more of a growth and a resurgence in dance in the last 12 years,” Newland said. “That is being done in churches of all denominations.”

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