Hellgate Dancers Traveled to Dubai to Perform at World Expo

The theme of their dances was to bring the American West (especially Montana) to the Expo. Photo courtesy of Ruby Jenni.

Ali Caudle, Co-Editor

In December, four current Hellgate students traveled with their dance company, Rocky Mountain Ballet Theatre (RMBT) to Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE). They were invited to perform at the Dubai 2020 World Expo, representing the United States, as part of RMBT’s Ballet Beyond Borders initiative. 

The 2020 Dubai Expo is the most recent in a legacy of mega-events to improve humankind’s knowledge and demonstrate scientific, technological and social progress, dating back to the first World Expo in London in 1851. This year’s theme is “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future,” where visitors can experience “the making of a new world at the greatest showcase of human brilliance and achievement.” 

Hellgate seniors Ruby Jenni and Naomi Byrne, and juniors Amare Swierc and Dimitri Govertson-Donaldson were four of the nine young dancers who traveled to Dubai alongside their dance director Charlene Campbell Carey, choreographer Walter Barrera, pianist Karen Carreno, and Native American dancers Al Plant and Kya Rae Arthur. 

RMBT is a unique dance company in that they train in Missoula and travel all around the world for performances. Their academy dancers range in age from 14 to 18, and train in ballet, contemporary, tap, flamenco and hip-hop. 

Jenni has traveled abroad many times with the company. “I personally have been on two trips to China supported by the state department as well as dance training intensives in Austria, Portugal, Mexico, and Canada. And trips to participate in cultural festivals and the like in Russia and China,” she said. 

For the 2020 Expo, they were invited by the U.S. State Department to travel with diplomatic status and perform as cultural performers for the U.S. Pavilion. Their dances aimed to “embody the energy, enthusiasm, and spirit of the Great American West.” 

“Despite traveling all over the world, [in Dubai] we had the most diverse audience we’ve ever had,” said Jenni. “Our performances reflected some of the things we’ve done in the past that the US department wanted us to bring to the Expo.” 

More than 192 countries were represented at the Expo in different pavilions: some countries had large pavilions while some of the smaller countries shared buildings. According to the Expo’s website, visitors can “explore 192 County Pavilions, treat yourself to dishes from every corner of the world, unleash your inner techie and experience entertainment unlike any other.” 

While the dancers spent plenty of time rehearsing and performing, they still took time to explore. “We had a few hours a couple of times to visit pavilions, getting our Expo passports stamped. Each pavilion exhibited the cool things each country was doing as well as some had art installations and cultural exhibits,” said Jenni. 

“We got to see the crazy exhibits at the Saudi Arabia pavilion and visit South Korea’s pavilion, have sushi at Japan’s pavilion, see Milan fashion week dresses and a recreation of the David in Italy’s pavilion,” she said. “Plenty of surreal experiences. The expo was newly built and laid out in the shape of a flower. So you could walk in circles and circles, cutting across walking roads for hours.” 

“Everywhere you went there was music playing out of speakers that would change depending on what section of the expo you were on; it pulled together the ambience in a wonderful way.” 

The RMBT dancers performed three times on the main expo stage in the U.S. Pavilion, called the Jubilee Stage. They also performed an additional five times on the small U.S. Pavilion stage underneath the replica rocket. 

Other presenters at the US Pavilion included paralympians, professors from prominent universities, best-selling authors, and even singer Alicia Keys. Jenni added, “Due to it being super crowded and our bus coming to pick us up we got to see about two pretty cool minutes of her. I hear, however, that the State Department told our dance director that we got better ratings.” 

The Expo was originally scheduled for October 2020 through April 2021, but it was postponed for a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic (the name 2020 Expo was retained for branding purposes). In order to ensure a safe experience, strict COVID-19 protocols were followed. All of the dancers were required to be fully vaccinated to travel in and out of the UAE, and to wear masks at all times. 

While the performances themselves were the highlight of the trip for all of the dancers, they also spent their time in Dubai immersing themselves in the local culture. When they weren’t staying at the hotel the US State Department paid for, they visited the 124th floor of the Burj Khalifa – the tallest building in the world – and wandered through traditional souk markets, exploring the vendors selling spices, gold, clothes and more. 

“We also spent a night in the desert in a program that replicates the traditional bedouin camps that people lived in for centuries in the Arabian desert. We had camel’s milk and smoked chicha (hookah/tobacco) and had food made in the traditional ways, absolutely delicious and a totally surreal experience none of us were expecting. Sitting at midnight in a camp with no lights on, by the fire, under the stars was truly something special,” said Jenni. 

“It was a great trip and interesting to be in a country whose native culture is so different from our own in America. Many women were wearing burqas and we had to be careful to not touch in public as displays of affection are off limits in the UAE,” said Jenni. “It was hard because dancers are super physically affectionate with one another.” 

The dancers returned to the US on Dec. 16 after spending 10 magical days in Dubai. “On the main stage it was always at sunset and on an outdoor stage the sky was incredibly beautiful as it changed. It was certainly a picturesque performance despite the fact that the physical intensity of the hour-long shows was insane,” said Jenni. “It was super fun to be there… an absolutely insane experience that I would not hesitate to do again.”