The United States has always been a nation of immigrants. Unfortunately, new arrivals are often met with hostility.
During the late 1910s, animosity was aimed at immigrants from Germany, with whom the United States was at war from 1917 to 1919. That hits home for Hannah Bahney, an apprentice dancer with the New Orleans-based Melange Dance Company, whose family was subjected to anger and suspicion for their German heritage during that turbulent decade.
Bahney will perform the role of a German immigrant in Melange’s premiere of “Journey of Dreamers” opening Thursday (Dec. 14) at the Art Klub and running through Sunday. The 3-year-old contemporary dance troupe largely focuses on social issues, and the hot-button topic of immigration is the theme for this production.
A recent arrival from a German Amish area of Pennsylvania, Bahney was given the role even before Melange’s artistic director, Monica Ordoñez, knew about Bahney’s family history.
“I had been reading a book of stories about people who passed through Ellis Island, and I was struck by the words of a German immigrant woman (in the 1930s) who called herself ‘the alien enemy,’” Ordoñez said. “It triggered something in me, and after I gave the role to Hannah, it turns out that the woman’s story was essentially Hannah’s family’s story. ... It’s amazing how perfectly this worked out.”
Bahney studied dance under Barbara Hayley at Tulane University and received her master’s degree in architecture there in May. She said that until recently, she was unaware of the animus directed at her great-grandparents for their heritage.
“I never really asked about it, and my family is kind of private," Bahney said. "So now that I’ve started this performance I’m finding out so much about my ancestry from my grandmother and my mother ... . I’ve never connected so well to any character I’ve played. It’s a very emotional and connective way to dance.”
Dancers will portray some of the nationalities and ethnic groups that made up the waves of immigration through Ellis Island in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Costumes, by Kaci Thomassie, will reflect their homelands, Ordonez said.
The action takes place on a ship and on Ellis Island. Projected visuals include old black-and-white footage from Ellis Island.
In addition to conceptualizing, designing and choreographing the production, Ordoñez will also be dancing, along with Melange’s executive director, Alexa Erck Lambert. Other dancers are Anna Hassan, Clinton O. Parfait, Courtney Strouse, Elle Ciccarone Jones, Emily Apple, Gianni Reid, Laudrey Cody and Monique Brogan.
The company’s mission is to present “socially relevant, multidimensional, meaningful and entertaining narratives that are often inspired by history and social justice,” said Ordoñez, whose parents emigrated from Cuba to Miami. “This is something I can personally relate to.”
Next up for Melange is “Her Story,” being staged at Loyola University's Roussel Performance Hall on March 9-11. An original piece by the company, its mission is to “honor our founding mothers and the platform they created for the quest for equality, journeying through the three waves of feminism to bring monumental moments in 'herstory' to life.”
Journey of Dreamers
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday (Dec. 14) through Sunday
WHERE: The Art Klub, 1941 Arts St., New Orleans