Show a ballet based on a true story of risk and success, and viewers may forget it's a history lesson, too.

"They dared to dream," Shirley B. James said of freed slaves who founded the town of Nicodemus, Kan., in the 1870s. James is festival coordinator for the 25th annual Savannah Black Heritage Festival.

"Because of the historical aspect of it, we had a lot of really emotional responses to it," said Nena Gilreath, the ballet's co-director.

The free performance of "Flyin' West" by Atlanta's Ballethnic Dance Company - taking place at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 4 at the Savannah Civic Center - casts an educational light on this tale.

But the learning comes easily.

"I like to call it 'educational entertainment.' I've coined that little phrase myself," James said with a laugh. "You're enjoying it while you're learning."

Recently freed slaves in the story dream of their own land, and find it in Kansas.

"They actually took the chance; they risked going to an unknown place," James said.

"Flyin' West" is the story of six settlers in that all-black town.

They were part of the migration of blacks from the South. But they didn't go North or Northwest like many others, a fact James thinks some forget.

It's "exciting to me to bring some light to that part of African-American history," she said.

The message of "Flyin' West" hits wider than land ownership, though.

It's for people who dream, set goals and pass on a legacy.

"You took the risk and overcame the obstacles ... and did what you had to do to make it a reality," James said. "That's just life, when you think about it."

The story was written in play form by Pearl Cleage, a fiction writer, poet, essayist and journalist.

The play became a ballet when Waverly Lucas, Atlanta choreographer and co-founder of Ballethnic, transformed the story.

"It keeps the best of everything," Gilreath said.

Words, not typically in ballets, "are so important" in Cleage's play, according to Gilreath. The ballet retains some play dialogue.

The show is also a blend of dance, unique to Ballethinc's style.

It's airy and upright ballet with deep, grounded movements and undulations of African dance.

"It's a hard mix because it's two opposite ends of the spectrum," Gilreath said.

The Atlanta dance company has performed twice in earlier Savannah Black Heritage Festivals.

"We've just had good reviews, so we've brought it back," James said.

Ballethinic's classically trained ballerinas join more than 40 Savannah dancers for the local show.

The night before the ballet, the playwright and choreographer behind "Flyin' West" will meet for a public conversation at First Congregational Church.

Being there is like hearing an author and scriptwriter talk about a book made into a movie, according to James.

The public can come hear Cleage and Lucas talk about the history of Nicodemus, Kan., their reason for producing "Flyin' West" and how they worked together.

"I think that will serve as a wonderful precursor to the ballet," James said.

Attendees to that W. W. Law Lecture Series will "have some good background information ... and probably enjoy the ballet even more," according to James.