“Everyone can relate to hunger of some kind,” says Heather Maloy, founder, artistic director and choreographer of Asheville’s professional contemporary ballet company, Terpsicorps Theatre of Dance. “Hunger for love, acceptance, perhaps even power.”
With that concept in mind, Maloy aims to hold up a mirror to audiences. “I like to take things from people’s daily lives that they can relate to and compare it to ideas that may be more abstract,” she says. Maloy hopes her work will spark the question, “If hunger for nonessentials can impact my life, what would it be like to hunger for food, water or shelter?”
Terpsicorps’ Hunger returns to the stage Thursday-Saturday, June 20-22, at Diana Wortham Theater for the company’s 17th season. Its message is even more relevant today than when the ballet premiered in Asheville five years ago.
Maloy first staged Hunger in 2014 in response to statistics she read in a local article that revealed higher food insecurity rates in Western North Carolina than the U.S. national average. Today, she says, things are worse, with MANNA FoodBank distributing 18.2 million pounds of food in 2018, up from 15 million pounds in 2014. This inspired her to restage Hunger and to partner with MANNA. “We did a tour of [the food bank], and it’s twice the size it used to be,” Maloy says. Representatives of that organization told her that the main difference they had seen over the last few years “is a large portion of people coming in are working two jobs, and they still can’t afford enough food to feed their families.”
The Terpsicorps production will be performed as a series of vignettes using various styles of music. Some pieces, such as “Hunger to Kill,” the narrative of a serial killer, may shock. Others, such as “Hunger for More,” where the concept of greed is explored using bouncing rubber balls, may delight. “Hunger for Sustenance” appears twice in the program, repeating the same music and even some dance steps. The first version portrays anger and aggression while the second explores exhaustion, complacency and how hunger for sustenance can change a person over time. The final vignette, “Hunger to Make a Difference,” depicts community members coming together to solve a problem, aiming to leave audiences with hope and inspiration. “Dance is a useful tool to get people to feel something on a visceral level that’s different than hearing words or statistics,” Maloy says.
Also on the roster is the world premiere of “AYT? (Are you there?)” choreographed by Maloy, a humorous commentary on how people communicate and their attachments to their phones. Dancers will move with cellphones in hand, save one, who can’t find her device.
The evening also includes “Extension,” created by Salvatore Aiello, depicting the life of a dancer. This is a tribute performance to the late Mel Tomlinson, an African American ballet dancer who performed with the New York City Ballet and Alvin Ailey, among others. Maloy befriended Tomlinson when she was a young artist at the North Carolina Dance Theatre, which is where Tomlinson performed “Extension.”
“I wanted to re-create the piece in honor of his memory,” Maloy says. “I did a nationwide search to find the right dancer to embody Tomlinson.” Keith Justin Reeves of the Atlanta Ballet was ultimately selected.
Originally, Maloy’s goal was to make Terpsicorps a year-round company. So far, that hasn’t happened. Instead, it functions as a summer company, mainly recruiting dancers on break from their full-time residencies. However, the company’s growth continues. In 2015, The Academy of Terpsicorps dance school was added, and, as of this year, the professional company has a dual residency in Winston-Salem.
Maloy describes Terpsicorps as a contemporary ballet company. “It’s a hard term to define. These days it can mean a thousand different things, but all my dancers are trained in ballet and contemporary dance,” she explains. “What’s unusual about us is it’s a bit rare for a company to do bold political statements simply because of the traditional nature of ballet.”
When Maloy started the company 16 years ago, she says theatrical-style ballet was scarce. “You see it more now,” she says, “especially in big cities, but I think it’s still unique for ballet to focus on storytelling to the degree that I do.”
Eight professional dancers and seven apprentices make up the 2019 company, coming from all over the U.S. Past years have brought in dancers from Spain and Canada. “A unique kind of dancer is attracted to Terpsicorps,” says Maloy. “Our work is technically challenging but also theatrically demanding.”
In the beginning, dancers were acquired mainly by word-of-mouth, using Maloy’s personal connections. “Now the word gets out farther and farther every year,” Maloy says. “The broad range of dancers that now know about and are attracted to Terpsicorps is really exciting.”
WHAT: Terpsicorps Theatre of Dance presents Hunger
WHERE: Diana Wortham Theatre, 18 Biltmore Ave., dwtheatre.com
WHEN: Thursday-Saturday, June 20-22, at 8 p.m. $20-$40