She's known for her American Folk Ballet, but that fact is still somewhat surprising to Burch Mann.
Mann, a petite woman who turns 80 this week, is the creative force behind the unique mixture of classical ballet, modern dance, folk dance, jazz and everything in between that has become a celebration of our country and the people who created it.But Mann freely admits, "I always wanted to be a writer. My real joy in life is to write. I never intended to be a choreographer."
The 5,000 pounds of books in her Southern California home attest to her interest in history; most are about Indians and nature. And if she had it to do over again, "I'd be a musician and a naturalist - not a choreographer." She feels she'd have more control over how things turned out if she were in some business besides dance.
But people who have seen her American Folk Ballet over the past 26 years are glad she "got caught up in dance during the Depression and just never got out of it."
Her current productions, "The Prairie Years," "The Deep South" and "The Texas Breed," are being presented in the Spectrum at Southern Utah State College through Saturday. They include not only the demanding technical steps of dances performed by disciplined dancers, but a thoroughly delightful glimpse into history, complete with music and songs Mann has chosen and a narration she wrote after careful research into the period.
The company of 24, most of whom live outside Utah, recently completed their 16th year of performances at the Festival of the American West in Logan. The dancers (but not Mann) will rest for the next few months as plans are finalized for tours to the Soviet Union, China and Japan for next year.
Mann is a woman of warmth and imagination who believes "all great art must bridge the gap between popular taste and the connoisseur with artistry that springs from the heart." She uses basic human emotions, depicted on the stage, to bridge that gap.
Accessibility was a goal of hers many years before she actually created the folk ballet. Born and raised on ranches in various Texas boom towns, she was later thrust into New York society, where she and her brother both danced ballet. Whenever she had the opportunity, Mann attended college classes and got more and more excited about American history. And she kept dancing.
At the same time, "I wanted to create something that men would enjoy as much as women did," she said. "Men in Texas just weren't ready for classical ballet." The result of her interest in history and her desire to create art that would reach the people is the American Folk Ballet, founded in Pasadena in 1962.
The company moved its headquarters to Cedar City in 1982, and Burch Mann made the town her home two years ago. She and her daughter, San Christopher, both teach in the college's dance department.
Both had lived in large cities and never had any real desire to live in a small town. Friends bet they wouldn't last six months in the predominantly LDS community. The friends lost. As Christopher put it, "I fell in love with Cedar City, and we have company members doing the same."
Mann flies to Los Angles when she has business there; meanwhile, she enjoys the small town lifestyle. "In L.A., I had to drive 50 miles to a rehearsal. Here I walk a block to the college," she said with a hint of Texas twang still in her voice. "I feel blessed that I can live in a little town. I have found openness, friendliness and open-mindedness."
Although a month in the hospital last year took its toll on her energy and appearance, Mann looks upon the experience - and her hair loss caused by medication - philosophically. The hair problem she calls God's punishment for all her years of vanity. Her life she calls a gift.
"The older I get, the more I appreciate the people who've made it that far," she said, smiling. Then, more seriously, "I feel gratified. My creativity seems to increase as I get older."
By choreographing the dances and writing her own narration for the folk ballet company, Mann has both put her creative talents to work and realized her goal:
"I want our audiences to leave the concert renewed, uplifted, feeling that man is worth the saving and life worth the saving and life worth the struggle."