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Take Five: Common Thread founder on dancing the story of Henrietta Lacks

his article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 2, 2013 - HeLa cells have been known to scientists since the 1950s. But the name Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer cells were the basis of groundbreaking research, only became widely recognized with the publication of Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” in 2010.

That same year, St. Louis-area native Jennifer Medina founded Common Thread Contemporary Dance Company, with a mission to create “a community of spirit and giving.” On Oct. 4-5, Common Thread will stage a performance paying tribute to Lacks, whose descendants, many of whom are poor and unable to afford health care today, were unaware that her cells were being experimented with around the world.

The homage to Lacks was choreographed by former Alvin Ailey principal dancer Uri Sands as part of Dance St. Louis’ Dance Horizons II coming to the Touhill Performing Arts Center. In addition to Common Thread, the schedule includes Leverage Dance Theatre, MADCO and Saint Louis Ballet, each of which worked with a nationally known choreographer.

Medina is a self-described “country girl from Jefferson County” who made sure in our interview to give a “Go Tigers!” shout-out to Festus Senior High, her class of 1990 alma mater. She talked with the Beacon about her return to St. Louis after being educated in Kansas City and Iowa and then living in New York, and Common Thread’s upcoming performance.

St. Louis Beacon: How can dance portray the Henrietta Lacks saga?

Jennifer Medina: It’s more inspired by her life than based on her life; it’s the theatrical interpretation of her life.

When people go see a show, they may not understand that not every dance tells a specific story giving us every detail. There is a tremendous amount of information; and it would take a three-day-long piece to tell it all. Uri Sands’ task is how to appropriately honor her life and transform it into a theatrical experience.

He drew some of the movements and material from a story about one of her children who had been put in a mental facility as a grown woman. The opening solo is about this woman. I don’t want to give too much away but there are also some groupings that suggest how a cell structure would duplicate from one to two dancers, or two to four.

How does the dance illustrate Lacks’ humanity?


Medina: Sands felt like her life had been reduced to an acronym: HeLa. But what about Henrietta Lacks?

She was a beautiful person who lived on our planet and loved and laughed. There are some theatrical elements that will be a surprise when people come to the show that help to convey these feelings, more so than just a thing that happened in human history.

How did you end up working with Sands?

Medina: The decisions about which company would work with what choreographer were made by [Dance St. Louis’ executive and artistic director] Michael Uthoff. He asked me about a couple of names and Uri was one of them. We landed on Uri and I was very much in support of this.

St. Louis College of Pharmacy is a co-sponsor of the piece. It has an arts consortium that helps extend the creativity of the scientists who are working in the pharmacy. They asked if this was something Uri would be interested in because some of Henrietta Lacks’ family members were coming to speak at one of their afternoon meetings.

On another topic, what brought you back to St. Louis?

Medina: To be close to my family. I was freelancing before the economy crashed in 2008. Then my sister got sick and my mom is in her 60s so I thought it would be a good time to return.

I also thought I could bring something to the community; I have a big social worker’s heart. And I recently took a professional position at UMSL [as director of the dance department].

What does the name “Common Thread” signify?

Medina: I feel as though we are all living different lives but we are all connected. When you see a kid laughing or playing or dancing, it makes everyone so happy. There are things in life -- children, animals, nature, art and music -- that connect us all as human beings.

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