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Saturday, June 16, 2007

Taking steps to raise funds for AIDS orphans

Lynne Charles is tired. She's rarely to bed before 4 a.m., and has to be up at 6:30 to get her son off to school.

Lynne Charles

"Look at me — or rather don't look at me," she jests. "My hair and nails could all do with some attention. As for the shadows under my eyes . . . let's just say I need these glasses."

The late nights — mornings, rather — are because she has to work when the other side of the world is awake. Organizing any kind of fundraising event is never easy, but when participants are scattered around the globe, it literally becomes a bit of a nightmare.

Fortunately for Dancing 4 AIDS Orphans — a three-day event in Yokohama slated for Aug. 20 to 22 for children whose lives have been affected by the pandemic in Africa — Charles is a New York-driven powerhouse of energy and determination.

As she states, "I've gone through so much over the last nine months that nothing will stop me now."

Charles came late to ballet. She was such a tomboy at age 13 that her mother bought her lessons as a birthday present. It's also interesting that she took to it as to the manor born, because her dream was to be an English professor, marry another professor and live happy ever after on some university campus.

From a small ballet school in Queens, she graduated to the American Ballet Theatre School, and then the School of American Ballet. "I was ABT's first student company member at age 17."

She has since spent 30 years dancing around the world with many of the most famed companies: Hamburg Ballet, Bejart Ballet, Ballet Roland Petit de Marseille, Kirov Ballet Leningrad and the English National Ballet. Both a contemporary and classical dancer, she is best known, she supposes, for her role as Giselle.

She started teaching 16 years ago after her son was born. "As a single mother, I had to be practical. Though I first came to Japan as a guest ballerina, I was invited to teach two years ago. By free-lancing, I'm able to keep my options open. Right now I teach morning and evenings, then work afternoons and nights as founder and artistic director of Dancing 4 Aids Orphans."

She came to Tokyo, she says, with wide eyes and big hopes. Now she knows better. "Ballet in Japan is all to do with money, ego and elitism and nothing to do with creativity and art. But I have a son who wants to go to Stanford (University) to study medicine, so must hang on for another two years at least."

Lynne Charles in Giselle
Best known for her role as Giselle in her 30 years of dancing, Lynne Charles is organizing Dancing 4 AIDS Orphans, a three-day August event in Yokohama to aid African children.

It was an hourlong CNN documentary about the effect of AIDS on children in Africa that pushed a button. Still reeling to learn that ballet students have to buy the chance to dance onstage, and sell tickets for performances while working part time to fund their studies, she marched into the Kanagawa Prefectural Youth Center in Sagurakicho and reserved its theater.

"Having called in all my cards in the ballet world abroad, I went to the Japanese companies. One director said he was not interested; he had his own project. Another company said that if X company was involved, then forget it. A third stated that members had heard on the grapevine that Charles was only interested in lining her own pockets.

"Only Tokyo City Ballet and Star Dancers came up trumps. I'm so grateful for their support. Now Yoichi Kobayashi will be dancing, also Shoko Nakamura is coming from Berlin. With Jose Carreno, Lienz Chang and many others, it's going to be a great lineup."

Back in March, Charles was on the verge of giving up. Japanese volunteers and members tried to hijack the event to turn it to personal promotion. When she said no, it was a charity benefit, with all funds raised going to organizations engaged in fighting AIDS/HIV pandemic — the Stephen Lewis Foundation, Medecins du Monde, Japan for UNHCR and African Japan Forum — all support was withdrawn.

"Now 95 percent of those people involved are non-Japanese volunteers. It's sad, but true. Maybe I'm naive. Maybe I don't understand how things work here. But I know what a charity benefit is, and this is where our efforts are concentrated."

An American colleague is giving up professional time back in the U.S. to act as project manager. A British friend is editing all promotional materials.

Embassies are supporting national dancers. Fifteen Japanese girls are dancing for free. A costume rental place is offering services for free. Five thousand condoms have been donated as giveaways, bearing a slogan that begins with a quote by Africa's Desmond Tutu: "Dance is life."

At an open house on Aug. 20, the public can watch classes and rehearsals, and meet the artists. Also watch films and see photographs to learn about AIDS in Africa. On the 21st, there are workshops, performances and a panel discussion. On day three, the charity gala, followed by a reception and silent auction.

Asked if she ever wishes she had never started, Charles shakes her head. "No. When I recall how many are dying every minute of every day in Africa, it puts all the bullshit and politics I have to deal with in proper perspective."

It is all the scarier to realize that Japan is the one country in Asia where HIV and AIDS are on the rise, with the main age group 15 to 29. Are people really so wrapped in where their next Gucci handbag is coming from that they don't see what is happening, and even worse, don't care, she asks.

In order to raise 38 million yen over the three-day event, Charles has to find 8 million yen by August. With plane seats to be purchased, programs to be printed , she is putting faith into the sales of specially categorized donor tickets, which involve amazingly generous donated benefits and gifts.

Everyone she knows has known someone who died of AIDS. That's why she's dedicating Dancing 4 AIDS Orphans to the memory of Rudolf Nureyev ("the greatest dancer I ever saw"), Jorge Donne ("my dance partner who died in 1996"), and singer Freddie Mercury ("who was simply the greatest ever!")

Charles says she is committed to showing Japan — and the Japanese ballet world in particular — that an event like this is possible. "I know they are waiting for me to fall on my face. But as my son says, so what? All I can do is do my very best."

Happy to include Dancing 4 AIDS Orphans in the city's 150th anniversary celebrations, Yokohama City Office is supportive while also playing a waiting game. "They're saying, If this works out, let's do it again next year." But for now, there's no funding.

Working flat out to keep innumerable personal and professional balls in the air, Charles says that considering the state of affairs three months ago, everything is going well; she just needs more sponsorship to help her sleep the few hours that geographic datelines are so far allowing.

"There've been times when I was screaming with bewilderment and rage. Now I can honestly say I'm through disappointment, through disillusionment, and I'm nearly through anger. But not quite."

Web site (in English and Japanese): www.dancing4aidsorphans.org

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