Floyd Sonnier’s book, “From Small Bits of Charcoal,” was written by the artist three weeks before his death and published posthumously by his widow. Autobiographical in nature, its 24 short stories — in both English and French — comprise a genuine narrative of growing up Cajun.
It’s about to become a genuine ballet, courtesy of Ballet Acadiana and internationally-acclaimed choreographer Bill Hastings.
“Le Papillon: Celebrating Floyd Sonnier’s Acadiana” will be performed May 13-15 at the Grand Opera House of the South in Crowley. The venue’s a fitting one, considering the Opera House was once the subject of Sonnier’s drawings. Le papillon (butterfly) references Floyd Sonnier’s trademark in his pen-and-ink artwork. Long a universal symbol of rebirth, it also signifies the rebirth of Cajun culture.
“It’s a ballet folk with elements of Cajun and musical theater, singing, dancing and acting all at the same time,” said Beverly Spell, Acadiana Ballet creative director. “I wanted to do something that represents the people here and to let the next generation know.”
Annie Spell, Acadiana Ballet board president, says the idea occurred organically at a meeting.
“Then we began putting feelers out to see who would be interested in working with us. One company member had a tie to the Sonnier family, another student’s dad knew Ward Norman of the Has Beans (a local Cajun band) … In a two-week period it came together,” she said. “We have access to great culture here. By January, we had things rolling.”
The ballet company is relatively young, starting in 2006. It is committed to a cultural focus of the Acadian people and their history and strives to use dance as a means of depicting this unique history, as well as its geography, artistic traditions and people.
True to this mission, the Has Beans have been incorporated into the project.
Board members first toured Vermilionville to put themselves in the setting and research the concept.
“Once Mrs. Sonnier agreed, I read the book and visited with her while she told stories about her husband,” Beverly Spell said. “I asked if I could bring in a friend, then called Bill (Hastings) and asked him, ‘Can you do this?’ He said he’d only be in the states for two weeks. So, at 10:30 on a Thursday, the board said yes. I asked Bill when he could come and he said, ‘Tomorrow.’ We picked him up Friday afternoon and started work immediately. We wrote the script in 10 days.”
“We did it in four and changed it in the next six,” Hastings added with a laugh.
According to Hastings, the ballet was originally structured in four segments with roughly 20 minutes concerning the courir de Mardi Gras.
“Then the whole thing came together in a different way,” he said. “It came out as an homage to Sonnier. It evolved.”
Hastings, who had worked with Beverly Spell before, said the ballet will reflect both humor and sentiment.
“There’s a heartbeat to the piece that comes from giving back in spirit, something larger than the dancers themselves. It has pulse. It’s beyond representational. It honors the man and his work,” he said. “I have a sense of pride in this project, and I’m not Cajun.”
Ballet Acadiana’s classically-trained dancers visited the Sonnier art gallery in Scott and had to be taught Cajun dancing. The dancers range in age from 11 years old to adult professionals, and number 21 altogether.
“It has to be authentic,” Beverly Spell said. “You’re not just doing steps,”
Michael Vincent, of the LSU AgCenter, will provide the narration.
“I’m a little out of my element,” he said. “I grew up in Lafayette, but French was the first language of my grandfather. I took it seriously after his passing.”
Vincent, who is a postdoctoral research chemist for the Audubon Sugar Institute and lives in Baton Rouge, remains close to South Louisiana French culture.
“Sonnier reached people who normally wouldn’t have been exposed to Cajun culture,” Vincent said. “He offered it to everyone. He really told the story about the people.”
It is Ballet Acadiana’s fervent hope that those unaccustomed to ballet will come to this one, and Annie Spell sums it up as a point of awareness and pride: “Whether they have any Cajun blood or not, it’s going to be a beautiful piece of art on stage.”
“They’ve kept it a surprise, and I’ve purposefully not asked to see too much in advance,” said Mark Sonnier, the artist’s son. “My dad’s whole life was preserving the culture and ours has been keeping the legacy alive. Basically, I’d like for people to see and experience what they might not have seen before.”
“It is absolutely the most unique ballet,” he said.