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Lehua: where body, brain meet

The island-grown dance troupe will present ‘Beauty and Martyrdom’ Feb. 6.

Rain Ross runs at Karena Hatfield-Grytting full tilt.

The imminent collision is averted at the last moment, as Ross leaps into the arms of the other dancer. Held aloft with Hatfield-Grytting’s arms locked around her knees, Ross is borne around the stage.

The aerial pas de deux is a “phrase” from Ross’ “Beauty and Martyrdom,” the centerpiece of Lehua Dance Company’s Feb. 6 performance at the Playhouse.

The difficult-to-perform work, Ross says, is a celebration of dedication to art.

“The whole piece, it has to do with the beauty there is in being a martyr,” Ross said. “There’s this beauty, this passion, this incredible drive, but then there is the sacrifice, that sacrifice for the beauty, so is it worth it?

“And if you decide not to go on the path of that passion, what is it to let go of it?”

For now, Ross has no intention of straying form the path of serious art-making.

Raised in an island family steeped in the arts – her father, Cecil Ross, and her brother, Jude, share a woodworking studio here – she graduated from Bainbridge High School in 1995.

Already immersed in study of classical ballet through classes at Bainbridge Dance Center, Ross earned a degree from Mt. Holyoke College and danced professionally in South Africa before breaking away to form her own Bainbridge company, Lehua, named for the bloom of a Hawaiian tree.

Now in its third season, Lehua features an eclectic mix of dance forms. Unlike the minimalism that dominated dance until the 1980s, the company’s emphasis is on story, with more than a footnote to ballet.

‘Muscle memory’

A dance like “Beauty and Martyrdom” is physically and mentally challenging.

Storing all the steps in the body’s “muscle memory” is hard, Hatfield-Grytting says, because the dance’s many phrases – the short combinations of moves that, like the grammatical phrase, make up the larger statements – are reused in many combinations throughout the piece.

“You might have phrase A followed by B and C,” Hatfield-Grytting said. “But then you might have B, C, A and C, B. It’s like a mental jigsaw puzzle. It’s, ‘okay, I just fell to the floor, which I do 20 times – which thing do I do out of it?’”

Learning the work is made harder by limited rehearsal time. While a large company like Pacific Northwest Ballet holds rehearsals every weekday, Lehua’s small troupe can only get together once or twice a week.

“A lot of the muscle memory would happen if we could run it more often,” Ross said. “It’s good that we have smart dancers.”

Ross draws on both Seattle’s dance community and performers fostered by Bainbridge Dance Center for her nine-member company. The group includes two students, Alicia House and Devin McDermott, the beginnings of a young company that will feed the professional corps.

“They’re treated as if they were the same as everyone else,” Ross said. “Both are talented and hard-working young ladies.”

Every Lehua dancer must “run” the piece in his or her head when the group is apart. Ross uses the time to analyze videotapes of each rehearsal, to put the finishing touches on a work that began a year ago as “sketches” for the group to try out.

“It’s a hard piece, it’s very, very demanding,” Ross said. “It’s made my dancers have to work their brains as much as their bodies.

“But the effort has created something very beautiful.”

* * * * *

Lehua Dance Theatre presents “Beauty and Martyrdom (And Other Stories),” 7:30 p.m. Feb. 6 at the Playhouse.

Dancers are Christiana Axelsen, Laurentia Barbu, Karena Hatfield-Grytting, Jana Kincl, Michelle Miulli, Ani Raymond, and Rain Ross, with Bainbridge student company dancers Alicia House and Devin McDermott.

Lehua Artistic Director Rain Ross offers an advanced dance master class from 1-3 p.m. and an intermediate class 3:30-5:30 p.m. Feb. 1 at Bainbridge Dance Center. Class fee is $20, or $15 with performance ticket. Call 898-1320 to register. Tickets for the performance are $15 for adults and $12 for seniors and students at 842-8569.

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