Dancers from ‘Lion King’ indulge their creative impulses in CSN program

Hakuna your Matata somewhere else.

Dance on this stage is a creative receptacle, not a Vegas spectacle.

Honest. They’re not “Lion.”

“I just came from rehearsal, so I’m still floating on a cloud,” says Erin Barnett, an ensemble dancer with “The Lion King” at Mandalay Bay, who does not, let’s stress, mean a “Lion King” rehearsal. Not unless “The Lion King” has suddenly adopted the sexualized gyrations of Bob Fosse choreography or the urban in-your-face-ness of hip-hop movement.

“We do the same thing every night and it gets a little bit routine, so it’s good for the dancers to use their bodies and their talents in what is really the way we were trained,” Barnett says. “True artistry — pure dance, singing, nothing ‘spectacle’ about it, an honest, genuine way of expression.”

Freed from the jungle gymnastics of their, shall we say, mane gig, 16 “Lion King” dancers, accompanied by six singers, will prowl the stage of the Nicholas Horn Theatre at the College of Southern Nevada’s Cheyenne Avenue campus in North Las Vegas Friday — their usual off-night – for “Live. Love. Dance!”

Unlocking their creative cages, the program enables their other talents to roam free for an evening, indulging in multiple genres including jazz, contemporary ballet, burlesque, tap, gospel, funk, hip-hop and Fosse’s angular sensuality (that last one set, oddly, to the soundtrack of “Austin Powers”).

“I think we get every genre in there,” says “Lion King” choreographer Celise Hicks, who is directing and co-producing the CSN program.

“We have dancers from all different places around the world — Africa, Jamaica, Canada, all over the United States – so it’s their experiences that make up the (program). It’s all original dances and some of them are choreographers in their own right. They wanted the chance to do their own stuff.”

Scratch the gratitude and good will of these hoofers toward their steady gigs — after all, a billion or so dancers throughout the world would give their right paw to snare a “Lion King” gig in Las Vegas – and you’ll find a familiar longing that goes by the name of “Hey-Don’t-You-Wanna-See-What-Else-I-Can-Do?”

That — no offense to the entertainment behemoths on the Strip and the tourist trade that feeds them — is where cozier community arts outlets can assume starring roles. “We’re always so happy about dancing in ‘Lion King’ but there are other strengths we have and performing for the community, they are more understanding of the arts,” says Derrick Spear, a “Lion King” ensemble dancer — a giraffe, specifically.

Long-necked and visually striking on the Strip, Spear will take on more human dimensions in a contemporary ballet piece, the nod to Fosse (the late genius of “Chicago”/”All That Jazz”/”Pippin” fame) and a hip-hop work.

“(Community audiences) have an appreciation of the quality of dance in terms of concert dance versus the spectacle dance you see on the Strip,” Spear says. “Dancing for a community makes me feel a warmth and sensation because I know it’s just one time to do it. Then I go back to work doing what I love to do, but it’s that one step out of your regularly scheduled life.”

Described as a showcase for “expressing individual ideas about art, life and love,” it might sound high-minded and arty, but don’t get lost in the theme — just groove to the cross-section of music, footwork and body fluidity.

“It’s almost like you’re back in school, it’s really for love,” Hicks says about rehearsals — held mornings or after regular “Lion” performances – with pieces set to music by Adele and Brandy, as well as Steve Reid.

No Mufasa, Simba and Timon.

“I had rehearsal last night and it humbles me,” says Barnett, who is set to perform in burlesque, jazz, contemporary and African-flavored dances but also is choreographing a piece based on Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” which tells the story of a quartet of African-American women, each representing a stereotype, their skin described as black, brown, yellow and tan. (Lyrics: “My skin is black, my arms are long; my hair is woolly, my back is strong; strong enough to take the pain, inflicted again and again.”)

Even the run-through left her emotionally drained. “I was moved to tears because of the emotion and commitment from the singers, just to be able to collaborate on something so different,” she says.

“It was so overwhelming, the energy and spirit that was in that room. It really gives you a chance to put your heart and soul into it.”

We’d never disrespect “The Lion King’s” roaring fan base, but for a few hours Friday night …

Matata your Hakuna somewhere else.

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@review journal.com or 702-383-0256.

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