The chains are real in Legacy Repertory Company’s ballet “Aladdin.”
They land with a dull clank when George Sanders, his hands cuffed in heavy metal links, leaps, then crashes against the hard wood floor.
But it’s not just the sound that director Boleyn Willis-Zeger is going for as she rehearses her cast for three weekend performances.
When the group gathers for notes, she tells Sanders he needs to show more emotion. She’s not seeing it in his face, or in his body.
“What I’m looking for is just that moment,” Willis-Zeger says. “More struggle against being in chains.”
Later, she explains there is a shape to a male dancer’s back, honed by lifting ballerinas, and in Sanders’ case from hours in the gym.
“We’re using real chains,” she says, and Aladdin’s back muscles should visibly strain against the shackles.
“You can’t fake working with something that’s going to hit you in the face,” she continues. “A dancer can take shortcuts with plastic. You won’t get that sense of imprisonment, of confinement.”
So Sanders, a professional dancer, will have to work harder to show the struggle, because this is Willis-Zeger’s show and she is his director, not just his mother.
“It gets weird,” Sanders, 24, concedes a few days later.
Sometimes, he explains, he may see a different approach, which he thinks his mom generally appreciates.
“But I’ve learned my part,” he says. “She’s the director. I’m the palette. She gets to paint what she wants.”
For this Aladdin, Durham-based Legacy’s third production of the “The Arabian Nights” tale, Willis-Zeger says she has upped the ante. Look for more lifting, more precise timing and more moves that require advanced technical skill.
Two ballerinas will dance the female lead in separate performances. Isabelle Frame, an 18-year-old senior at Northwood High School, previously danced the roles of Wendy in “Peter Pan” and the title role in last year’s “Cinderella.” Wanyi Ng is a 21-year-old junior at Duke University who has danced for 15 years.
Rubén Suárez, who plays the evil Royal Vizier, played Aladdin in the company’s two earlier productions, the first time when he was just 16.
“Being evil is sometimes a little more fun,” says Suárez, now 22, and also a professional dancer.
And then there’s Sanders.
“When George walks into a room, all of a sudden – because he’s coming in with this energy – everything goes up,” Willis-Zeger says.
Sanders, who has taught ballet and offers fellow students advice, shows them they can keep dancing if they want to.
They look at him, Willis-Zeger says, and realize “oh, I can go that far.”
‘An amazing artist’
Willis-Zeger studied at what’s now the Tisch School of the Arts in New York City and was a semi-professional modern dancer. After having her son and leaving that world, she found she missed dancing.
Legacy Repertory Company is her dance world now. She runs the company for those who want to learn, those who want to pursue dance careers and those who just want to include dance in their lives.
The first time she did “Peter Pan,” she says, her Wendy was 30 years old.
“Boleyn is an amazing artist,” says parent Alyssa Rodriguez-Finch. “She started Legacy Repertory Company because she believed the community needed a performing arts company that was open to performers of all ages and abilities whether or not they wanted to pursue a career in professional dance or theater,”
The company is a family affair.
Willis-Zeger’s husband Geoffrey, Sanders’ stepfather, plays a guard in “Aladdin.”
Suárez, who grew up in the company, calls Willis-Zeger his “dance mom,” then pauses and adds, “It almost feels like for me she’s a second mom.”
And Legacy is low-key. Walk in the door and you’re likely to stumble over parents and students sewing costumes in the hallway.
“Yeah, I’d love to have a sewing room,” Willis-Zeger says. “But if people have to work sewing costumes it doesn’t hurt my feelings. ... For me, it’s not just about putting on shows. It’s about teaching them to put on shows.”
Inside the mirrored studio in the brick warehouse on Duke Street it’s all business, though. Willis-Zeger offers encouragement, tells a dancer she has put her costume on backward and reassures her lead ballerina that Aladdin won’t drop her.
It’s only in moments when Willis-Zeger and Sanders clash – and it happens – that Suárez says the dancers remember they’re watching a mother and son.
“The lines blur,” Willis-Zeger says. “So sometimes, because we know each other so well, we’ll hit a button.”
“That’s when the cast goes eegh,” she continues. “It can be challenging, but on the whole I think he’s brilliant.”
‘Just my mom and me’
Sanders started dancing at 10. His mother worked in a store next to then Bounds Dance Studio in Chapel Hill.
“I would wander into the dance studio, and one day the owner just asked me to take a class,” he recalls. He’d played a lot of sports – soccer was his favorite – but he discovered he loved moving to music.
They cleaned the studio, with Sanders wiping down the mirrors, to pay for classes. At night they returned to their Section 8 apartment in Durham’s West End, “the only white lady on the block with a black kid,” says Sanders, who is biracial.
“It was just my mom and me,” he says. “I didn’t have a dad. ... I never really thought about going further in sports. I never had a dad to play catch with or do any of the things I thought in my head a dad would do.”
Willis-Zeger never pushed, he said. But when one class ended, they’d sign him up for another. He wasn’t sure what dance held for a boy like him.
“I was definitely the new kid,” he says. “And being the only black kid ... I don’t want to get too race-y, but there’s not too many of us that do ballet.”
By 14, he was at the N.C. School of the Arts. In the summers, he attended the Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia. He’s studied with teachers from the New York City Ballet and Dance Theatre of Harlem. He’s performed internationally.
Dance is hard on the body. The art takes a toll on the muscles that Willis-Zeger wants to see strain against Aladdin’s chains in the ballet’s second act.
But Sanders wants to keep dancing, until he’s 60 if he can.
“I really enjoy and love what I do,” he says. “I have a lot of friends who do not love their jobs.”
That’s why he’s excited about “Aladdin,” and the chance to share what he’s learned with the younger dancers.
“You have to be a person before you’re a dancer,” he says. “And I want to be a good person, which I think will make me a great dancer.”
If you go
Legacy Repertory Company will perform “Aladdin” at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. Saturday, May 16, Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St. in downtown Durham. Advance tickets are $12-$18; at the door, $15-$23. Tickets: http://nando.com/19c
The company will also present a free performance of the ballet for special-needs community members and their families or caregivers at 6:30 p.m. Friday, May 15. Admission is limited to 800 people, and wheelchair seating is wait-listed. Register at http://nando.com/19b. You should receive a confirmation of your registration. For more information, email Alyssa Rodriguez-Finch at email@example.com.