Harlem children perform in Aspen | AspenTimes.com

Harlem children perform in Aspen

Karl Herchenroeder
The Aspen Times

In 1975, Julio T. Leitao fled Angola because of civil war. As a refugee in Zambia and later Portugal, he found solace in African dance. Taking that influence to Dance Theatre of Harlem, he founded Batoto Yetu, a performance group made up of New York's inner-city children.

"It's something that has been missing in (the children's) lives," Leitao said of African culture. "They discover their heritage and the value or role that heritage plays in one's identity and self-esteem."

Twenty-seven children from Batoto Yetu, 3 and older, have been in Aspen since Monday. Every day, they have been interacting and rehearsing with another minority group, Aspen Santa Fe's Folklorico, 240 students from Basalt, Carbondale and Santa Fe, N.M., who are trained in traditional Mexican dance. The two groups will perform together at 4 p.m. today at the Aspen District Theatre.

Aspen Sante Fe Ballet director Jean-Philippe Malaty discovered Batoto Yetu eight years ago in the Netherlands. He was impressed immediately with Batoto Yetu's "sense of value and the artistic integrity" and "mostly the leadership involved with Julio".

"It really reminded us of our Folklorico program at home," Malaty said. "We thought, 'My God, wouldn't it be great to put these two groups together?'"

In addition to rehearsal, the children have had social outings together, exploring the malls as well as a trip to Rock Bottom Ranch.

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"Latino is probably the only minority that we have here," Malaty said. "So we thought it would be great for them to realize that there are other minorities. There are other kids their own age who are passionate about dance and put as much energy and commitment into it."

For almost all the children in Batoto Yetu, this is their first visit to Colorado.

"When we were getting on the bus after we came out of the airplane, I was just looking out the window and was like, 'Wow — this is not New York at all,'" said Lili Massac, 11, of Manhattan.

Massac has been performing with Batoto Yetu since she was 5. In Aspen, she's spent time checking up on the local art and fashion at the Aspen boutiques.

Frank Malloy IV also has been performing with Batoto Yetu since age 5. He's 21 now and serves as the program's musical director.

"I just connected with it," Malloy said of the early days. "I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to continue. It was an experience, being a young kid, being around other kids that are doing the same thing as you, having mentors."

Malloy, who grew up in New York City, has traveled to three different continents with the group — Asia, Africa and Europe. His fondest memory, however, was in his hometown, for a 2001 performance celebrating Michael Jackson. In front of thousands at Madison Square Garden, the children danced with Jackson as well as Whitney Houston, Usher and Mya.

Leitao said the experience in Aspen has helped the children grow in terms of character and identity.

"I'm very pleased that we came here," Leitao said. "It's going to be a lot of color, a lot of energy, a lot of movement, and I really hope that the people here will like it."

Influences from Angola, Congo, Senegal and South Africa will be on display at the performance as well as drummers and a mariachi band.

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