Most cultures around the world have rituals surrounding death, rituals of closure that serve as spiritual events as well as simply giving us rules to go by at a time when it's difficult to know what we should be doing. Following the tragic road accident last month that killed two young Chinese dancers and injured 13 other members of the Beijing Dance Academy, the dance community of Spokane is coming together to pay tribute to the teens by doing what they know best --dancing. Just about every dance organization in the Spokane area is taking part in "For A Dancer," a memorial concert for 17-year-old Jia Shuli and 16-year-old Gong Xiang, the two dancers who died in the accident south of Ritzville.
Wayne Larson of Debut for the Arts, who is presenting the event, says the show will serve as just such a ritual. "It provides a celebration of closure," he says. "When there's a death, there needs to be closure, and the dance community is rallying together for this. It's something we should do, and it's something we have to do."
A wide range of dance styles will be represented in the concert, and the list of participants reads like a Who's Who of local dance companies. Dance Center of Spokane, Dance Time Theater, Dance Theater Northwest, the Erderly Ensemble, the Haran Irish Dancers and the Silver Spurs will all bring their full companies, and several others plan to participate with individuals, couples and small groups. Li Heng Da, the artistic director of the Asian Performing Arts Theater in Seattle and the man who originally brought the Beijing Dance Academy dancers to Spokane, has been invited, but his participation is not yet certain. Larson says it has been heartwarming to see the response from everyone involved with dance in the area.
"With all of these companies, there was never any question that they'd be involved, only how much they could do," he says. "The great thing about this is that it includes ethnic dance, folk dance and classical, all on the same stage. And so many of the dancers are the same age as the kids who died."
The title piece, "For A Dancer," is a newly choreographed ensemble number based on a Jackson Browne song about a dancer who died. Featured soloists are Kara Samargis, a 17-year-old Ferris High School student, and Maggie Crumet, who is 16 and a sophomore at St. George's. These two local young women are the same ages as Jia Shuli and Gong Xiang. Crumet is excited about the performance and the chance to dance in a tribute to other young dancers.
"They obviously loved dance just the same way I do," she says, "so I'm honored to have this opportunity." Crumet has been dancing since she was 3 years old and is now focusing on jazz performance, hoping to move into the professional ranks with jazz or musicals. "I love dancing," she says. "It's a lot of hard work, and I wouldn't have stuck with it for so long if I didn't love it."
The van accident that took the lives of the Chinese dancers hit close to home for Debut's Wayne Larson as well. Before returning to Spokane, Larson managed several foreign dance groups, organizing tours and acting as road manager for a variety of foreign arts attractions.
"I've been the guy driving the van full of dancers," he observes. "But for the grace of God, that could have been me five years ago."
He was impressed with the response from Spokane's dance community toward the Chinese dancers and their families. "[The accident] affected everybody," he says. "It showed me a lot about Spokane, how people rallied around the group." As an update, he adds that Sacred Heart Hospital just released the last of the seriously injured dancers, so all of the accident survivors are now back home again.
In addition to being a celebration of closure honoring the Chinese dancers, the concert is a benefit, with proceeds going in part to the families of the dancers and in part to establish a dance scholarship for local performing artists. The recipients of the dance scholarship will be announced at Debut's next big dance event, a concert by Ballet Folklorico at the Fox Theater in April.
For Wayne Larson, the concert is a fitting tribute to the two young men whose final performance he attended. "The kids were so excited to be dancing, and so proud to be representing their country in the United States," he says. "The best way to celebrate them and pay tribute to them is to dance."
"For a Dancer" is at The Met on Sunday, March 25, at 3 pm. Tickets: $10 (proceeds help establish scholarships for dancers). Call: 325-SEAT.