Two local youth arts organizations present “Crossings,” a powerful choral ballet exploring racial justice

Two local arts organizations are converging for a rare performance of “Crossings,” a coming-of-age story told through dance, vocal music and spoken word.

Pittsburgh Youth Chorus (PYC) and Hill Dance Academy Theatre (HDAT) are co-presenting the choral ballet on May 15 at 2:30 p.m. at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty. Tickets are being sold on a pay-what-you-can basis to celebrate the post-pandemic return of live entertainment, but advance registration is required.  

“Crossings” is the tale of a young, Black woman who confronts racism in her Uptown community and, in the process, finds inner strength and beauty in an often ugly world. The theme is as relevant today as it was 30 years ago. 

“Crossings” rehearsal photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Youth Chorus.

The piece was written in 1992 by composer and performer Ysaÿe Barnwell and David Roussève, a choreographer and filmmaker, for the now-defunct Pittsburgh Dance Alloy Theatre. The upcoming event marks the first full-scale production of the work since the original performances, the first partnership between PYC and HDAT and the first production orchestrated by young artists, who range in age from 8 to 18.

The collaboration was originally scheduled for spring 2020, but the pandemic put “Crossings” on hold until January 2022, when rehearsals began.

This production of “Crossings” is a creative collaboration between adults and students.

Lee Saville-Iksici and Dr. Ayisha Morgan-Lee, executive directors of PYC and HDAT, respectively, received joint funding for the project from the Opportunity Fund and say the experience has reenergized their organizations after two years of virtual programming. “Crossings” will showcase HDAT dancers featuring choreography by Morgan-Lee and Michia Carmack and PYC students led by Artistic Director Shawn Funk. 

The performance will also highlight other Black creatives, including Anita Levels, the adult soloist and narrator; PYC BIPOC Artist-in-Residence Dr. Michael Warren; Teaching Artist Akinlana Lowan; CAPA Educator Gerald Savage; CREW Productions LLC Founder, CEO, and Executive Producer Eric Smith, who will manage all production and videography for the performance. DVD copies of the show will be available for purchase in the near future.

“The celebration of this work by Black artists and forging organic relationships between Hill Dance Academy Theatre and Pittsburgh Youth Chorus allows our organizations – both student vocalists and dancers – to work together,” says Morgan-Lee, who founded HDAT in 2005 to provide professional-level training in Black dance traditions.

“It is our hope that this project demonstrates ways to bring about new understandings of our artistic cultures,” Morgan-Lee says, “and how the arts can help to forge racial healing in our shared humanity.”

Before unleashing “Crossings” on the public, PYC and HDAT will complete a 10-day residency at Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts magnet school (CAPA), where Morgan-Lee is an adjunct faculty member. The residency will culminate in a May 14 show for the participants’ families.

Both leaders say their members are taking the material to heart and letting their emotions out through song and dance.

“They can feel the story they are trying to tell,” Morgan-Lee says. “They know the world isn’t always the prettiest place we want it to be. It’s a relatable story for the times we’re living in right now.”

Because “Crossings” is a uniquely Black story, Saville-Iksici brought in Black teaching artists to work with PYC members.

Organizers hope the sense of connectedness, the melding of different backgrounds on stage and in the audience, will help bridge the racial divide after what has been a very challenging time in American history.