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Dancer Tai is winging her way up North.

Byline: By David Whetstone

Dancer Tai Jimenez tells David Whetstone about the stresses and strains of performing a magical role.

Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded 35 years ago, following the assassination of Martin Luther King.

It was a novelty, this company of black dancers practising an artform whose image had always been predominantly white.

For most of its history, DTH has been primarily identified as a black ballet company. But it has gone beyond that now.

These days it is acknowledged simply as one of the best dance companies in the world. Its visit to Newcastle this week should be regarded as a hot ticket, a must for dance fans and the best possible introduction if dance is an unknown quantity. You've heard of the body beautiful. You'll see no better definition than this.

New Yorker Tai Jimenez is one of the company's principal dancers. She danced with the company in London, at Sadler's Wells, last year but will be making her first trip to the North-East this week.

She is a dancer at the top of her profession and, at the Theatre Royal, will be taking the leading female role in The Firebird. This is a dance based on a Russian folk tale and with music by Stravinsky.

It was originally produced in 1910 but since DTH premiered a new version in 1982, choreographed by John Taras and relocated to a tropical island, it has become the company's signature work. It tells of the encounter between a young hunter and a beautiful creature, part woman and part magical bird - the firebird.

It lasts 30 minutes but that means very little. "It's a very hard piece and requires a great deal of stamina," says Tai.

"It's so hard that I once asked to be taken out of it for a while - I had so much anxiety about it. I stayed away for four years but eventually I felt able to go back into it and I don't feel so afraid of it any more. I'm still finding new things in it all the time and I feel now I'm really starting to make love to it. Some roles take years to develop and this has taken me a while."

Tai first saw The Firebird on television when she was about 13, performed by DTH and with a dancer called Stephanie Dabney in the title role. It was one of the things that made her determined to become a professional dancer herself, although she already loved to dance.

"I started going to dance studio at the age of seven or eight and I just felt really serious there. I knew that, for me, it was something special and a different experience to that of my girlfriends."

With the blessing of her schoolteacher mum, she auditioned for the highly selective School of American Ballet. Ten years ago she made her DTH debut and now here she is, one of the company's senior dancers. She talks about her dancing as others might talk about their religion and indeed she says: "To me, dancing is a selfless act. I'm not concerned about myself but about expressing the full power of the work."

And The Firebird still works its magic. Tai says there's a young dancer called Ebony who recently joined DTH. "She said it was seeing me dance The Firebird that made her want to come and dance in the company - so the legacy continues."

Dance Theatre of Harlem will perform three works, including The Firebird, at Newcastle Theatre Royal on Friday and Saturday at 7.30pm with a 2.30pm matinee on Saturday. Box office: 0870 905-5060.
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:May 5, 2004
Words:605
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