Young people summoning strength amidst daunting challenges that came with integrating schools sparked Leah Glenn’s creative process and inspired an idea.

Glenn is Year of the Arts Professor of Dance at William & Mary as well as founder and artistic director of Leah Glenn Dance Theatre. Her research into the Little Rock Nine, and particularly Carlotta Walls LaNier, inspired choreography for a dance piece that grew into a multi-media performance.

Dancers from her company and selected W&M students will perform the Williamsburg premiere of “Nine” as the inaugural performance and soft opening of W&M’s newly renovated and expanded Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall on Sept. 9 at 7:30 p.m. It will be free and open to the public.

Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall is part of the new Fine and Performing Arts Complex, which recently opened as W&M begins its Year of the Arts.

“I’m so honored and excited to be in this space and to be the inaugural performance,” Glenn said.

The performance is the culmination of multiple collaborations among W&M faculty, students and alumni. Leah Glenn Dance Theatre, celebrating its 10th anniversary season, consists mostly of W&M alumni as well as three current student apprentices and six professional dancers, four of whom will be in this concert.

All students who took the spring COLL 350 course Dance, Poetry, Art & Social Justice were invited to participate in the evening’s performance and will contribute in a variety of ways.

Hermine Pinson
Hermine Pinson (Photo by Stephen Salpukas)

 Hermine Pinson, Frances L. and Edwin L. Cummings Professor of English & Africana Studies, wrote poetry for the piece. Steve Prince, director of engagement & distinguished artist in residence at the Muscarelle Museum of Art, designed the costumes and sets.

Stephen Hayes, assistant professor and choral director at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas, composed original music for the project.

“It is such a pleasure to have this opportunity not only to collaborate with my colleagues in the way that I’ve been able to, but to collaborate with the students and alumni and professional dancers on something as meaningful as this, and to do this for the university as we begin this new adventure in this brand new arts complex,” Glenn said.

A balm and a charge

During her 2017 research leave, Glenn pondered a series of works she wanted to create that were inspired by the civil rights movement. She was drawn to the Little Rock Nine and the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957, and was particularly inspired by Walls LaNier as the youngest at 14.

The Little Rock Nine were African American students who were enrolled and then prevented from entering the racially desegregated school by state government before being allowed to attend after intervention by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

“I was intrigued by the emotional terrain and thought about myself as a 14-year-old and what it would be like for me to walk in her shoes,” Glenn said. “I’d like to think that I would have risen to the occasion; however, I am not sure. And I thought about my parents and what the experience of sending their child into this historic moment might have been like for them.”

She choreographed a four-minute solo. Next, she contacted Prince and asked if she could use his print “9 Little Indians,” which is also inspired by the Little Rock Nine, as a backdrop.

Black and white art piece showing human figures in a tight group, some of whom are clutching books
“9 Little Indians,” by Steve Prince, Linoleum Cut on Paper, 24” x 60” (Courtesy photo)

After the piece was performed twice, Prince offered to paint a costume dress, and lighting designer Michael Jarett was brought in to collaborate.

“We said what if we did more?” Glenn said. “What if we expanded and did a piece that showcased all nine members of the Little Rock Nine? Long story short, the four-minute solo has now evolved into a 35-minute piece.”

Glenn contacted Pinson, with whom she had worked in the past, and Pinson agreed to write original poetry. Glenn next approached Hayes. Building on the solo performed to the spiritual “Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray,” Hayes wrote music for several sections of the piece.

Glenn focused on the emotional journey of the people involved, which isn’t necessarily conveyed in historical photos on the internet or existing history books, she said. “Nine” is meant to explore the everyday trauma that the members of the Little Rock Nine went through as they persevered through this moment in history.

“The piece is meant to be a balm, as well as a charge to continue to engage the arts as a means of exploring our collective history and building community as we grapple with a variety of societal issues,” Glenn said. “I feel like I have this dream team of artists, so I’m really excited to share our work.”

Finding inspiration

Pinson teaches a course on the civil rights movement in American literature, as well as one on Black expressive culture, and started there in approaching Glenn’s request. She also drew on her own life experience.

“As I was coming of age, the whole integration, de-segregation issue was being fought in the courts, the streets and the classroom,” Pinson said. “So, I was able to see up close some of these events.”

Steve Prince
Steve Prince (Courtesy photo)

She took the refrain, “won’t let go ‘til it thunders” from Langston Hughes’ book-length poem “Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz,” in which he excoriates Orval Faubus, then-governor of Arkansas; segregation; and white supremacy, in general.

“The title of the other poem is ‘One More ‘gain To Be Free,’” Pinson said. “It’s really a kind of a riff on what it means to be free not just as Black people, but as a nation of people. I was inspired by the movement of the dancers themselves in embodying in that particular historical moment capturing a mood, a feeling, a determination to get the nation to live up to its own advertised creed.”

For the costumes and sets, Prince explained that for his piece “9 Little Indians,” one of the key elements he drew upon was the idea of the students entering the school being covered by invisible protective armor.

“The idea came out of the Bible book of Ephesians in chapter six where Paul writes that ‘we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities and things in high places’ and encourages followers and believers to put on the whole armor of God,” Prince said. “I took that idea, and I created these little patches that you’ll see show up in the costuming.”

Melding his work for the first time into a work in motion, Prince said he had to be mindful that his contributions were the backdrop and needed to be smaller and visually quieter to amplify the dancers as the focal point.

In the spring course, which was taught by Glenn, Pinson and Prince, students studied the history of the civil rights movement and explored aspects of it and themselves through hands-on arts experiences such as learning a short dance piece, writing poetry, making masks of one another’s faces and painting costumes.

“One of the things we tried to push not only with the class, but with our work, is get people to remember to remember because it’s so important,” Prince said. “Forced to embrace the truth of the history of what people had to go through and the extraordinary deeds that they had to pay, but by the same token what we must continue to pay forward with our lives.”

, Communications Specialist