Erica De La O
Erica De La O in rehearsal | Photo by Sam English

The Louisville Ballet’s premiere of a new Shakespeare-inspired work as part of the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival’s season in Central Park has become one of Insider Louisville’s most anticipated events of the year.

Choreographer Roger Creel and Composer Scott Moore have given audiences original full-length ballets based on “The Tempest” and “King Lear,” as well as a ballet about Shakespeare’s sonnets. Each has brought not only fresh movement to the stage, but fresh ideas about what makes these Shakespearean stories special. 

This summer, Creel is keeping his normal duties of the initial conception of the ballet and developing its story, while Moore is again providing a brand new score and making his own contributions to the concept and the story. They’re taking on “Cleopatra: Queen of Kings,” and it all begins in Central Park on Wednesday, July 31.

This production also continues the collaboration the Louisville Ballet began with last year’s “The Tempest,” showcasing 10 award-winning step dancers from Western Middle School, performing choreography by Chris Malone and Antae Dickerson.

The big change is the addition of a new choreographer, Erica De La O. A principal dancer with the ballet, De La O has performed roles from the titular Giselle to Odette from “Swan Lake.” She brings a blend of modern ballet and contemporary movement to Louisville Ballet. 

Insider caught up with De La O and Creel to talk about dancing, dynasties and how to get inside the mind of a queen who took on the most powerful empire in the world. 

“(Creel) had already established that he wanted to do Cleopatra. And he asked me if I would be available … I think he wanted to have the female point of view,” says De La O. “We’ve had many conversations about ballet from the female point of view, and interrogating a ballet that’s done all the time, but interrogating it from the point of view of a woman.” 

In addition to bringing a woman’s perspective to art focusing on a woman’s perspective, Creel saw value in De La O’s lived experiences in and out of the ballet world. 

“Erica, having grown up in east L.A., has a lot of experience translating between worlds, which is exactly what Cleopatra has to do,” says Creel. “Cleopatra has bridged the gap between the Egyptian and Roman world.” 

Roger Creel
Roger Creel in rehearsal for “The Tempest” | Photo by Sam English

De La O’s transition between public spheres has manifested in her work before, particularly in her installation piece “Illesig.” While it deconstructed and reversed ideas on gender found in the classic ballet “Giselle,” De La O performed it in a skate park and community center in Los Angeles. 

Another gap De La O bridges is the space between the ballet classics of old and today’s new works, a feat that is coming to be a major focus of the Louisville Ballet under Director Robert Curran. 

For De La O, that means seeking out new opportunities and new ways of dancing. 

“I always do workshops when I go home (to east L.A.), especially in contemporary, because I knew I needed to explore contemporary movement and modern,” she says. “So offseason, I always make it a point to take workshops that are uncomfortable.”

That discomfort has paid off, and De La O has choreographed for the Louisville Ballet’s Choreographer’s Showcase, the Louisville Ballet School, “Dis/comfort Zones,” the Hadley Creatives’ interactive installation work at Actors Theatre, as well as other opportunities around the region.  

Erica De La O and Kristopher Wojtera
Erica De La O and Kristopher Wojtera as Marie and the Nutcracker | Photo by Sam English

Despite her work that steps outside of the world of ballet — and dance altogether — De La O is emphatic on one point.

“I’m a bun head. Loud and clear,” she says.

Bun head is the common slang in the dance world for dedicated ballet dancers. And De La O’s declaration certainly speaks to what audiences will see on the C. Douglas Ramey Amphitheater’s stage. 

“There is definitely ballet in it. And fouettébecause it’s my vocabulary. It’s my native tongue,” she explains. “But I’m also using it in different ways. There’s definitely a mix of classical ballet, and it’s used traditionally and un-traditionally. It’s used vertically and horizontally.”

De La O puts just as much thought into what that movement means.  

“Something (Roger Creel and I) are both interested in is constantly having a conversation about the information we have now about Cleopatra. And breaking down the image, this Hollywood image, the sexualized image she carried for so many years,” says De La O. “When in fact we now are more certain of her actual characteristics. She was very educated, she spoke many languages, she was an incredible military strategist, she ruled the country for decades successfully.” 

De La O believes that is a huge part of why a female perspective and choreographer is so important to “Cleopatra.”

“So, looking at the female body from a different point of view … rather than a hot babe in the black slinky thing and cool eye makeup,” she adds.

“Cleopatra: Queen of Kings” performs nightly at 8 p.m. from July 31 through Aug. 4 at the C. Douglas Ramey Amphitheater in Central Park, 1340 S. Fourth St. The free production runs approximately 90 minutes with one intermission. Pre-show entertainment is hosted by Louisville Ballet’s Community Engagement department and will include performances by the Louisville Ballet School students and pre-show talks with the artistic team. 

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Eli Keel
Eli Keel is “pretty much” a Louisville native. You may have seen him around town reading poetry, short stories, dancing or acting. He’s a passionate locavore, so you may have also seen him stuffing his face at one of Louisville’s amazing restaurants. When he isn’t too busy writing short stories, he blogs at amanwalksintoablog.wordpress.com.