At the height of the Harlem Renaissance nearly a century ago, the famed Cotton Club featured some of the era’s best blues and jazz performers. The venue, which featured African-American entertainers, had a whites-only clientele.
Singers, dancers and musicians weren’t allowed to mix with the club’s audience. And their families couldn’t watch loved ones take the stage.
But on Saturday, Austin’s Ballet Afrique imagines a different history inside the 1920s New York City hot spot. What if, despite rising racial tensions at the time, the Cotton Club had, for at least one night, opened its doors to an integrated audience? What if Duke Ellington, one of the venue’s signature artists, had threatened to walk out if it didn’t happen?
“Echoes of Harlem: A Night at the Cotton Club” examines the cultural complexities of the period while taking audiences back in time. To immerse in the swanky club experience of yesteryear, ticket holders will be asked to dress in roaring 1920s attire and no cellphones will be allowed at the show, which will be 8 p.m. Saturday at the Sterling Event Center in Northeast Austin.
“I’m trying to take you on a journey to understand how it felt to be an artist or person at the time,” said China Smith, Ballet Afrique’s founding artistic director. “What if you were gay then? What if you were an interracial couple? I want to make people think. Through art you build understanding.”
Smith launched Ballet Afrique, a dance company and academy, nearly 10 years ago to fill a gaping void she felt while growing up in the city. Although she had a childhood exposed to cultural arts of all kinds, she rarely saw African-American arts culture represented in Austin.
“When you don’t see yourself, your community or people who look like you artistically valued, I think it plays a huge part in how you internalize your self-value,” Smith said.
She also tired of seeing African-American artists constantly leave Austin in search of opportunities elsewhere and hoped Ballet Afrique would offer performers a place to grow artistically.
“For me, I’m not necessarily looking at dance from an aesthetic perspective but more of an internal perspective,” she said. “How does dance make you feel as opposed to how does it look on your body. I believe that if it feels good, then it’s going to look good.”
Smith’s dance philosophy also involves deep diving into history and culture, which has led her to examine dance as a way of healing and surviving. She’s researched dance in places from Congo Square in New Orleans, where slaves congregated on Sundays to dance, sing and play drums, to the Harlem Renaissance during the Jim Crow-era.
“I call it survival through brilliance,” she said.
Smith often wondered what it would have been like to live and perform during the Harlem Renaissance. “Echoes of Harlem,” which is part of the dance company’s Love Letters performance series, will recreate Duke Ellington’s orchestra, replicate menus from that time and bring singers like Billie Holiday and Lena Horne to life.
At a rehearsal during crunch time this week, while costumes were still being sewn in the corner of the dance studio and moves perfected, singer and dancer Ashley Hazzard, 24, soaked it all in. It was the first time she’s been featured in an all-black production. “Normally, I’m the only one,” she said. “So this has been really inspiring and empowering.”
Hazzard, who portrays Horne and sings “Stormy Weather” in the show, said she hopes the stories of Harlem Renaissance-era trailblazers, like Horne, don’t get lost.
“Austin needs to have a place where you can see all these beautiful types of cultures,” Smith said. “I’m desperately trying to keep that alive in Austin.”
If You Go
What: Ballet Afrique’s “Echoes of Harlem: A Night at the Cotton Club”
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Sterling Event Center, 6134 U.S. 290 East
More Info: Tickets, which range from $65 to $1,000, can be purchased online at balletafriqueaustin.org.