This friendship began at a casserole pan, where both where desperately scraping for remnants to curb their hunger.
And they were both very hungry at the time. Debbie Allen remembers that.
But she also remembers not being too hungry to talk, because in the midst of scraping up the last of the chicken casserole, Derek Gordon suggested that she work on a project at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Gordon was working there as senior vice president at the time. He would leave there to become chief executive officer for Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York before returning to his hometown of Baton Rouge.
And it would be in Baton Rouge where he would serve as president and chief executive officer at the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge, through which he would bring world class entertainment to the city.
This included Debbie Allen.
How can anyone categorize Allen? She’s a choreographer, a dancer, an actress, a director and producer. She’s received Tony, Emmy and Golden Globe award nominations, and she’s choreographed dances for the Academy Awards.
And she’s used all of these talents to produce shows with casts of local performers in the last five years.
And she returns this year with something different. Very different.
Because she didn’t have a chance to discuss this year’s show with her friend Gordon, with whom she began collaborating after helping him eat the last of the chicken casserole.
That was maybe a little more than 15 years ago. And that’s really how Allen and Gordon met.
Gordon was able to develop a collaboration between Arturo Sandoval and Allen for Sandoval’s ballet, Pepito’s Story, at the Kennedy Center. Allen choreographed the ballet and later returned to the center to stage an original production called Brothers of the Knight.
“That was so wonderful that I had to turn it into a children’s book,” Allen said.
She would also stage the production in Baton Rouge twice after Gordon began heading the Arts Council.
“We’d always talk in the fall about what we wanted to do in the spring,” Allen said. “But I didn’t get a chance to do that this year.”
Gordon died on Sept. 10, 2012.
“The last conversation I had with him was more me talking and him listening,” Allen said. “I knew he wasn’t doing well.”
And in the end, Allen, like so many people in Baton Rouge, lost her friend. She misses him, but she also is grateful for his friendship.
So, she’s decided to celebrate his life with a new production, Here’s to Life — Derek’s Song. The production opens Thursday, March 14, at the Magnolia Performing Arts Pavilion on the Baton Rouge Community College campus and runs for six performances through Sunday, March 17.
Meaning, there will be plenty of opportunities to see this tribute to Gordon’s life and see dances performed to the music he loved.
“We will include his favorite pieces from our past shows,” Allen said.
“And there will be new pieces choreographed to the music he loved. And he loved so many types of music. Derek loved opera, and he loved jazz. And religion was very important to him, so we’ll have a piece dedicated to that.”
Would it be too frivolous to say that it’s all about Gordon? No, because it should be about him. He’s the person who made the annual Debbie Allen Dance Residency possible. That’s the official title behind these programs, which gives local dancers between ages 6 and 26 a chance to work with Allen and her team of choreographers.
Allen usually travels from her Los Angeles studios to Baton Rouge in January to audition dancers for the production. The job isn’t easy. Prospective dancers show up in droves and are divided into age groups. The audition process takes hours, beginning early in the afternoon and ending late at night. Callbacks take place the next day and final decisions are made.
Then Allen returns to Baton Rouge for rehearsals. This really is like coming home for her.
She has family in West Baton Rouge, with whom she spent summers while growing up.
So now she returns to pay tribute to her friend.
Isn’t it amazing how food brings people together? How even a smattering of chicken casserole can mark the beginning of a friendship?
Allen is glad that casserole pan was there.
Glad for the chance to have known Gordon.
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