Whether borders are drawn to separate countries, counties or music genres, they are human inventions that can be crossed. That's the theme of Thomas Dance Project's Beyond Borders, a ballet set to Afrobeat, European chamber music and American rock, honoring the journey of refugees.
The ballet's choreographer, Kevin Gaël Thomas, who grew up in France, is the son of a Vietnamese refugee. Thomas moved to Colorado in 2007 to dance, eventually becoming a soloist for the Colorado Ballet. Through the Thomas Dance Project, he produces original, socially conscious performances.
"I'm a little bit Vietnamese, a little bit French, and definitely American, because my entire adult life has been here. Even though I still have the French accent, I feel very much American now. This country has offered me so many opportunities to be able to do things for myself," Thomas says. "I always wanted to create my own dances, to create movement the way I felt it."
When he last returned to his home town of Nice in 2016, Thomas witnessed a refugee convoy cross the border from Italy into France. He has been haunted by the memory since.
“They might have been from Syria or Africa. With their backpacks and entire families, they were crossing the border from Italy to France, and you could tell from their faces that they were not having a good time in their lives," Thomas recalls. "I was in the car with my parents, and I was like, ‘We’re fortunate enough. We’re crossing the border like it is nothing.’"
Through dance, Thomas believes he can portray the complexities of the refugee journey in a way that media headlines cannot. The project came together last year, when Thomas began collaborating with Gregory T.S. Walker, the son of Pulitzer Prize-winning classical composer George Walker. A decorated and storied composer himself, the younger Walker teaches at the University of Colorado Denver.
“I have been classically trained, but through the years, a little exposure here and there have tempted me off the straight and narrow," Walker says.
Between his classical upbringing and his love of discovery, Walker has devoted his life to creating new sounds. He still remembers how eye-opening it was for him to look through books owned by his grandfather, George Siemens, a geneticist who also taught at CU Denver.
“The bookshelves would be filled with all of these accounts of scientific discoveries and inventions and explorations, and it was such an escape from my mind, an escape from where I was being brought up, that it left this indelible impression," Walker says. "So when I view my music, it’s: How can I be inventing new things and exploring things?”
Walker likens composing music for Beyond Borders to completely reinventing the wheel.
“I’ve got to basically forget everything I’ve learned about music and build from what’s in front of me," he says. "You’ve got to be willing to give up all of your credentials, all of your comfort zone, and just get schooled by everybody."
The challenge was in composing one soundtrack to satisfy the highly trained virtuoso players of the Altius String Quartet with a groove orientation that Congolese guitarist Rich Richerstone and drummer Christian Kosande could improvise over. Also performing: Walker on an electric oud, David Hinojosa on guitar, all while Ethiopian dancer Simon Costello dances across styles of movement.
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"All that simultaneously in one piece of music — that's what keeps me up at night," Walker confesses.
Beyond Borders follows a family from its happy village through a violent war and across the border to a new life. The plot mirrors Thomas's mother's experience; she left Vietnam for France during the fall of Saigon. Despite fleeing her home country, she was always full of hope.
"In my ballets, it’s always a dramatic event that creates some kind of chaos, but in the end, I always try to see the light, no matter what kind of situation we are thrown in," Thomas says.
Beyond Borders will debut during the Echo D'Afrique Festival at 7 p.m. Saturday, May 11, at Su Teatro, 721 Santa Fe Drive; tickets start at $30. Beyond Borders will then be performed at 6 p.m. May 22 and May 27 at the People's Building, 9995 East Colfax Avenue in Aurora; and at 7 p.m. June 1 and 2 p.m. June 2 at the Armstrong Theater at the Colorado Ballet, 1075 Santa Fe Drive. General admission is $15.