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Classical meets contemporary as Louisville Ballet performs to Jack Harlow this fall

Balet dancers practice, with one flying above the others
Kateryna Sellers
Louisville Ballet
Dancers are preparing to combine ballet with hip-hop in the upcoming season's "502 performance.

The work of two Louisville artists is set to collide, with the Louisville Ballet performing to the music of rapper Jack Harlow in November.

The piece entitled “502” sets choreography by Ching Ching Wong to selections of Jack Harlow’s music.

Wong was in Louisville this week to choreograph the dance.

Wong said she found herself comfortable in creating movement around Harlow’s music.

“There's a grooviness and pulse that I am naturally inclined and lean forward into,” Wong said. “This opportunity to collaborate with his sound, it almost allowed me, perhaps, to be more myself.”

Wong said creating “502” was a collaborative process between her and the Louisville Ballet’s dancers and production team.

She said it feels like all the creative brains in the space linked.

“It's tasty, it's delicious, I have to say, you know, it's spontaneous, it's instinctual. And it allows us to navigate these uncharted waters with openness,” Wong said.

People in comfortable clothing look up while standing in a ballet studio
Kateryna Sellers
Louisville Ballet
"502" choreographer Ching Ching Wong said she easily found herself comfortable creating movement to accompany Jack Harlow's music.

The uncharted waters Wong is referring to is setting ballet — a dance style largely thought of classical — to the contemporary music style of hip-hop.

One of the ballet’s artistic directors, Harald Uwe Kern, said this type of work hearkens back to ballet’s early roots.

“Historically any ballet we consider a classic today, at one point was contemporary to contemporary music,” Kern said. “We cannot keep staying in the past. We love to do the classics. We like them very much. But it's a living art form.”

Kern said audiences have shunned pieces of ballet since its inception because they were set to the contemporary music of the time.

“If you go back in time, all that happened before, we're not inventing something new,” Kern explained. “There was a riot at the opening night of ‘Rite of Spring’ in Paris, because the dancers didn't understand the music. Somebody was yelling the counts in the wing.”

He said it’s important for people in ballet leadership positions to keep pushing for what the dance can look like.

Louisville Ballet's top executive believes that approach can create a space that welcomes a wider range of audiences.

“It's important for us to grow our audiences. And what we know is, post-pandemic, 27% of audiences will not return to the theater,” said Louisville Ballet CEO Leslie Smart. “So [it’s] critically important that we begin to grow a younger audience. The ballet has traditionally had an older demographic. And this is a beautiful way to do that.”

By creating a more welcoming environment, Smart hopes the ballet can continue its work as the state’s official ballet company as well as its community engagement initiatives.

“Art therapy and music therapy and dance therapy is so important to the health and well-being of Kentucky,” said Smart. “We certainly know that we can improve in that space.”

And by expanding who feels welcome in classical arts spaces, more people could find their way onto the stage and into Louisville Ballet audiences, Smart hopes.

Wong said finding dance changed her life.

“I am one of those people who don't think that I belong,” said Wong. “Each person's important. And we don't we don't know how much it can affect someone or change the trajectory of one person. The magnitude of that unknown is exponential, and fantastic.”

Louisville Ballet leadership wants performances like “502” to open its doors to a larger, more diverse audience along with a more diverse dance future.

“502” will be part of a three-part show called “Triple Take” during the Louisville Ballet’s 2024-2025 season, which begins this fall.

The Louisville Ballet provides financial support to Louisville Public Media.

Breya Jones is the Arts & Culture Reporter for LPM. Email Breya at bjones@lpm.org.