The Wilmington Conservatory of Fine Arts and Turning Pointe Dance present a performance of music, dance, and drama designed to be a "worshipful Christmas experience." Over 70 performers fill the stage of the Wilson Center this Sunday, December 9 for two performances of this show, titled Hope Has Come, at 2:00pm & 6:00pm.
Listen above to our conversation with director of Wilmington Conservatory and Turning Pointe, Cory Smith, and dance instructor Lesa Broadhead. Find our extended conversation below.
Lesa: I'm Lesa Broadhead, and I'm a teaching artist at the Wilmington Conservatory of Fine Arts, and I teach modern and yoga and also ballet.
Cory: I'm Cory Smith, and I'm the owner and director of the Wilmington Conservatory of Fine Arts, and also the founder and director of Turning Pointe Dance Company, which is a nonprofit Christian dance ministry that has its residency within the Wilmington Conservatory.
Gina: Turning Pointe is a Christian dance ministry?
Cory: It's a 501(c)3, it's a nonprofit that has its residency at the Wilmington Conservatory. So the dancers train throughout the week within the conservatory and then they audition to be within Turning Pointe.
Gina: So it's two entities, but they're working together?
Cory: Correct. Originally, our plan was—and here's kind of the background of why it came into being, which makes this very fascinating—is that originally, the Wilmington Conservatory was going to do a classical ballet production. And then Hurricane Florence came and uprooted our lives, and it just weighed on my heart that, at that point, it felt doing a standard ballet production at this season didn't seem appropriate any longer. And that's when I messaged Lesa and the rest of our faculty and said, hey, the word I keep getting is hope. Right now we all need something with a little more depth and a little more meaning, and we need to collaborate in all our genres, whether it be the theater class, the music class, all the contemporary genres with the classical. And we're going to come up with a story that's going to reflect a faith, something to have faith in, and then where we are in this present day. And I think it's pulled together! It's pretty amazing because we didn't start until after the hurricane. So we had our Wilson Center date that was going to be our classical production, so that was our date. And we're like, “All right, well we've got about two months to create from scratch this completely new story.” So that's what we're doing.
Gina: Tell me about the story that did come out of this.
Cory: So far, we open up with the perfection of who we believe God is and his goodness. And we start the story of the Christmas plot in Act One. We show the need for a savior, which leads us into highlights from Handel's "Messiah," into Act Two, where we do focus on the nativity. But then from that we show how that also can bring peace into our lives, and then we pull that story together into where are we now in this present day and how this is relative to hope and healing for us, even now in the season.
Gina: Lesa, in terms of the classes that you teach, how have you contributed to this production?
Lesa: Well, when Cory contacted me—she was texting me during Hurricane Florence and thinking about the new direction for our performance for December 9—I had already been planning my yoga class and I was doing it because I thought it would help heal me through the storm. And I was working on my playlist and I found this piece of music called "Peace Be Still" by Lauren Daigle. And I said, "I have to do something to that." So that is in the second act. It's an 8 minute long piece for about 40 dancers, and we will fill up every nook and cranny on the Wilson Center stage, but it's been real healing for me, I know, as well as for the dancers, to really focus on "Peace Be Still."
Gina: Do you have the traditional nativity story?
Cory: We do, but we really are looking at it through today's perspective. So our theater kids are not dressed in ancient clothing. They would be dressed in contemporary clothing. And so the skits that are acted out, the monologues, even the songs, are done in a contemporary style, so it's very relative to them today. So it's really speaking to the kids and to us as well.
Gina: Tell me about the different kind of performance modes we're going to see in this show.
Cory: Well, originally this was going to be a classical ballet production by the Wilmington Conservatory, but once we saw the title and where the story was going to go, we knew this was meant to be handed off to Turning Pointe to take over. Turning Pointe normally joins in and collaborates with us, but this time we felt with a message, how focused it was on the reason for the season, that this was a Turning Pointe production. And it's their first real production that they're carrying themselves as the nonprofit ministry. All our theater kids are singers. All our dance classes such as the modern, the contemporary, the tap, jazz, and of course classical ballet... it's mostly our intermediate through the advanced levels that are performing. So none of our youngest division are performing. But we felt it was something we could collaborate on and work together, which I think brings so much variety to a show. So there's no straight-through dance. It flows from song to skit to even scripture that flows into a dance. And so it's going to just weave together a story, kind of like old tapestry.
Gina: And Cory, you are not a teacher?
Cory: I am.
Gina: Oh you are a teacher, okay. Then tell me about your involvement in the creation of this?
Cory: Well, I knew the dance pieces and the choreography that I love to do at this time of year. So I have had some for many years now that are highlights from "Messiah" that are classical pieces. Contemporary worship pieces, too; "O Holy Night." And a few pieces that I knew I wanted to do anyway. So really, from pulling that together, getting our staff together—like I said, collaboration is the word for our studio. It is a democracy. Everyone is showing their talent and is showing their art form. We're grateful that our theater instructors are so flexible to say, "Hey, okay, we'll jump in." Rachel Hemingway and Katie Deese sort of doing theater and music were pulling in wonderful skits that just make sense of this whole story. And I knew there were scriptures that I wanted to pull through so that it kinda goes chronologically through everything. So that's been our collaboration, and I've also pretty much chosen a lot of the songs—I've heard from them what they've wanted, but also knew what direction of songs that were really on my heart.
Gina: It's called a "worshipful Christmas experience." So in the same way that Turning Pointe uses performance for ministry, this performance for the audience is almost like a service?
Cory: Absolutely. There are a lot of wonderful stories during the holidays that are commercial-based, and I felt this was one in the fine arts that needed to be focused on, besides just what you would find typically at church. I felt the fine arts could do something on a larger scale within the Wilson Center and focused on the Christmas story. So that's really what we're doing, is we're pulling the audience into a place of hope. Faith. Hopefully they will leave with joy. So they will come in and know exactly the purpose of what the story's about. It will be uplifting and hopefully just encourage every family member. And I really do feel the story is fun and entertaining and age-appropriate from young to old. So I think it's definitely for all ages. It's a very family friendly production.
Gina: Lesa, what is a favorite spot in the show? And it could be a piece of your own, of course.
Lesa: Yeah, Saturday we pulled it all together for our first dress rehearsal in the studio, and I know I had many moments—I know of three that really affected me in a way that I need to be affected at this time of year and with all that we've been going through in our town. It just was really quite beautiful. I know within my own work, creating or choreographing three human crosses on the stage is a nice little risk I've taken, and I won't be able to see it until we actually block it on the stage, but it's going to work. I just feel that. But it's something real special to me because it comes at a point in the piece where there's just been all this turmoil. You feel the waves flowing, you feel such a thunderous moment. And then all of a sudden, there's this piece. And you have three dancers taking on the three crosses. So we will see how that goes. But that to me is very special, and when it does happen, I know I will have another moment where I'm moved. But the Handel's "Messiah" really affects it all. I mean, I just think about all the different pieces, "Agnus Dei," just the beauty of it. The use of, not just dance, but the use of fabric. It just takes dance to another level. It takes theater to another level.
Gina: What music are you playing? What music is going along with your piece with the crosses?
Lesa: That's Lauren Daigle's "Peace Be Still."
Gina: Cory, did you notice any standout moments in the show? Any point that you've been surprised and been like, "oh, I didn't expect that for the show.”
Cory: Like she said, the variety of just the flow of everything I think has its own uniqueness. Leigh Williams has a tap production of 40 dancers and they're dancing to a gospel song, "Every Praise," and it's just so festive and uplifting, and they're clapping their hands and they're carefree and it's just inspiring. So that's fun for me as a ballet person to see all these dancers enjoying that—Lesa's piece too, even Josh Wise's contemporary pieces that we're going to flow into by the end of Act Two to present day. Actually when I told him, I said, "Hey, I want to go in the direction of hope," he sent me a song called "City of Hope," and there's a trio dancing to this song called "City of Hope" that is just beautiful and relevant for bringing hope back to our city. And so it finishes with pouring life back into people and healing and hope. When I see how it flows through everyone, I think every piece is needed to the puzzle. So it's hard to say, because there are so many highlights from everyone's expression. So I can't say there's a favorite.
Gina: How many performers are there?
Cory: I want to say there's at least 75 performers on stage.
Gina: The Wilmington Conservatory is a space... And it has a program of dance training?
Cory: It is. We are on the corner of College and Wilshire. 902 South College Road. It's a studio that originally started 12 seasons ago as Dance Arts Conservatory, but over the last few seasons we've evolved our program to expand to have all the fine arts. We really want to become a school of the arts, therefore we started adding acting classes, musical theater, and music lessons. So instead of only doing the dance genres that we did before, we've added this in the past few seasons. Now we focus on all the performing arts.
Gina: And that's where you work?
Cory: I own it, yes. I full-time work it. That is my thing. It's my baby! As well as Turning Pointe. It's almost like two sisters. They have their own personalities.
Gina: And you run Turning Pointe as well.
Cory: Yes, I do. And that's a real big heart of mine too, because what we're doing is we have these young folks who get together every week, besides all the technical training all week long, and have a small group setting where they have devotions and prayer, and create an atmosphere where they're encouraging each other and uplifting each other and building up each other. And then from that, they go into the community and we dance in churches and schools and nursing homes and hospitals. Then of course we go to festivals up and down the coast. So this gives them opportunity to learn what's important—that the arts are not self-serving, but we're teaching them that the arts are gifts to be given to others.