Orlando dances with the Man in Black

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The Ballet B.C. star's latest work pays tribute to the honesty and interpretive powers of a country legend.

Late it was, and winter. And the Coquihalla Highway was closed because of a heavy blanket of snow, forcing dancer-choreographer Simone Orlando and her mother to make an unscheduled stop in scenic Merritt, where the Ballet B.C. star stumbled upon the inspiration for her latest piece, Studies of Cash.

"I was starving," Orlando recalls in an early-morning phone interview from her home. "So we went down to the pub in our hotel, and we walked in, and it was karaoke night. It was a totally surreal experience, but there was this beautiful First Nations man who had this gorgeous, long, black hair, and he was being coaxed to sing a Johnny Cash song. He went up and sat on a stool in the spotlight, and 'Ring of Fire' came on, and he sang it beautifully. That just stuck with me–even though it wasn't Johnny Cash singing."

As a veteran ballerina, the 35-year-old Orlando is well versed in the music of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky and Igor Stravinsky, but she's also nursed a long-term passion for the strains of the late Man in Black. It wasn't until she heard her handsome stranger, however, that she realized she could also attempt a Cash tribute–albeit with four dancers standing in for the Tennessee Two.

"What I relate to, and what I'm inspired by, is the way in which he [Cash] delivers a song," she explains. "As a dancer, I sort of look up to his artistry as a singer and the way that there's a certain honesty in his work. He just kind of says it like it is. That's what connected me to these songs and to Johnny Cash: the way he delivered his lyrics, and the lyrics, of course, of many others."

In a sense, Studies of Cash is a gift from one skilled interpreter to another. And when Orlando debuts her latest choreographic creation–as part of an EDAM–sponsored showcase at the Western Front on Wednesday (September 12), with further performances on September 14, 15, 19, 21, and 22–she'll be setting it on some particularly gifted dancers. Joining Ballet B.C. colleagues James Gnam, Shannon Smith, and Alexis Fletcher will be rising modern-dance star Josh Beamish, whose "thrusty" presence, Orlando says, is the perfect complement to the more classically inflected approach of the others.

Also on the bill will be Highly Unlikely but Very Serious, a trio by Jennifer Clarke, and The sum of its parts, scored for seven dancers by EDAM founder and contact-improvisation guru Peter Bingham. Orlando credits the latter with encouraging her own choreographic aspirations, and for building a bridge between ballet and contemporary dance.

"We don't often get to associate with other people in the community," she notes. "We're in our own little world down there at the Dance Centre, and for a while I felt really alienated from the independent dance scene in Vancouver. So it was a nice gesture for Peter to ask us to come in and be a part of his series. He just greeted us with open arms and said, 'Here, do whatever you want,' so I appreciate that he's shown that trust in me and in what we're going to do."