Youth Dancers from Harlem School of the Arts Work with Columbia Students to Prepare for 'Such Sweet Thunder' Performance

A collaboration between Columbia students and children and teens from the Harlem School of the Arts is a central part of 'Such Sweet Thunder.'

Kelly Moffitt
March 16, 2022

As previously reported, Columbia's Such Sweet Thunder public events series has deep ties in Harlem. Continuing into the month of April, that connection will take center stage with the performance "Such Sweet Thunder: A Columbia-Harlem Concert Dance," which will take place on Thursday, April 21 at 7 p.m. at The Forum on the Manhattanville campus at 125th St. and Broadway. This stunning event is free and open to the public. It will feature youth dancers from Harlem School of the Arts, Columbia students, and dance luminaries such as LaTasha Barnes, Omar Edwards, Paul Taylor dancer Madelyn Ho and Derek Brockington of Dance Theater of Harlem.

Sabrina Peck, director, choreographer, and founder of CityStep, is spearheading the dance and community engagement component of the celebration of Duke Ellington's Such Sweet Thunder as a visiting artist in Columbia’s Center for Jazz Studies this year. The 1957 masterwork is comprised of 12 musical responses to Shakespeare characters, and Peck is curating an evening that interprets each of these pieces through dance.

Brockington will be creating four pieces for the Columbia Ballet Collaborative as well as a solo, Sonnet in Search of a Moor, that he will dance—and film—on the streets of Harlem, where Ellington thrived.

One of the most special components of the program is the collaboration between Columbia students and children and teens from Harlem School of the Arts. Harlem School of the Arts is a Columbia Community Service grantee, supporting scholarships for prep and enrichment programs at the school.

Twice a week, a team of students accompanies Peck to teach and inspire young people about Ellington, Shakespeare, and physical expression. The teens are embodying the witches in Macbeth and Iago in Othello as they develop a piece to The Telecasters.

"The 11-year-olds are discovering their personal power as they channel Othello in the opening piece, Such Sweet Thunder," said Peck. "Ellington was inspired by what he described as 'the sweet and swinging, very convincing story Othello told Desdemona.'"

Annelise Eileraas works with teens at the Harlem School of the Arts

Peck is no stranger to exploring Shakespeare characters through movement. She has choreographed adaptations of Shakespeare plays for the NY Shakespeare Festival in Central Park, The Public Theater, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Yale Rep, Theater for a New Audience, Classic Stage Company, and Cornerstone Theater Company.

“Shakespeare is visceral and physical,” Peck said. “The language, the complex characters, the imagery. It’s utterly natural to explore these characters and themes through movement to find that authentic, original expression that reaches the heart of a character or reveals the essence of a story.”

The collaboration between Columbia students and city kids follows the CityStep model. Peck hopes that this “pilot project” will lay the groundwork for CityStep Columbia, an ongoing student organization that will continue this work in nearby public schools. CityStep currently thrives at Harvard, Penn, Princeton, and Yale, where students use dance to teach local middle-schoolers creative self-expression and mutual understanding.

“College students are hungry for a way to make a difference," Peck said. "For these dancers, stepping outside the studio and into the streets shows them the powerful impact that their art can make.”

Below, find photos from a recent rehearsal and improvisation session between Harlem School of the Arts dancers and Columbia students. 

Sabrina Peck and HSA Dance Director Leyland Simmons explain the project.
Sabrina Peck (center) coaches the connectivity needed to embody the witches in Macbeth.
Sarina Malik ’25 (left) works with a young student at the Harlem School of the Art
Audrey Brown ’23 creates with her students at the Harlem School of the Arts.
Begum Cicekdag ’25 discusses the theme with her group
Sabrina Peck encourages shapes of personal power
Annelise Eileraas (BC'25) and HSA teens improvise movement connections