American Theatre‘s March 2016 issue explored how artists are combining theatre and dance in new and innovative ways. From director/choreographer Martha Clarke’s residency at New York City’s Signature Theatre, to a collaboration between San Francisco’s Zaccho Dance Theatre and American Conservatory Theater (ACT), a hybrid form of performance, often referred to as “dance/theatre,” is taking shape across the country.
Dance/theatre is also making its mark in theatre for young audiences (TYA), which shouldn’t be a surprise considering the large presence devised theatre and interdisciplinary partnerships have had in the field for years. The fact that 3.5 million children receive dance instruction in the U.S. suggests that dance may have a built-in fan base in young audiences as well.
“The thing I love about dance is it overcomes so many barriers, one being language,” says Jacqueline Russell, artistic director of Chicago Children’s Theatre. “I’ve found it transcends age groups more easily too. I think this really allows for a much broader reach.”
CCT will present Thodos Dance Chicago’s A Light in the Dark this October, a dance/theatre piece co-choreographed by Thodos artistic director Melissa Thodos and Tony winner Anne Reinking. The show, which runs Oct. 15-23, combines dialogue, contemporary dance, and an original score by Bruce Wolosoff to tell the story of Helen Keller.
“Because this is a narrative story, there’s still a way to hook a lot of theatre into it,” says Russell. “But you’re really seeing it through that abstraction of dance.”
A previous collaboration by Thodos and Reinking, The White City: Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, was inspired by the Chicago World’s Fair murders. The two wanted to take a different approach with their next partnership.
“We wanted to tell a story that could reach families—a more intimate story that hadn’t been done in dance before,” explains Thodos. “We also wanted to use dance as a medium to tell an important story in American history.”
The historical component was important to Russell too, as was the piece’s exploration of disability. “I remember reading the Helen Keller story and feeling personally affected by her life and her accomplishments,” she says, explaining that curricula today don’t cover the story as much as they used to. “To find a piece like this that we could give more life to is a win-win.”
Thodos has also created a supplementary program about disability that can be performed alongside the ballet, either in school assemblies or for a school-aged audience at the theatre, complementing CCT’s work for and with children with special needs. “We create access for audiences with disabilities, but also want to get audience members without disabilities thinking,” adds Russell.
Imagination Stage of Bethesda, Md., is also committed to bringing dance/theatre to young audiences. The company has collaborated twice with the Washington Ballet, first in 2012 on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and earlier this summer on The Little Mermaid, which ran June 22-Aug. 14.
“We’re kind of a parallel organization to the ballet,” says Imagination Stage’s artistic director Janet Stanford, adding that both companies have robust education initiatives and training programs for young artists.
Stanford wrote the book and lyrics for both projects, collaborating with her company’s associate artistic director, Kathryn Chase Bryer, composer Matthew Pierce, and choreographers David Palmer and Septime Webre, who recently stepped down as Washington Ballet artistic director.
For The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the team developed an approach where dancers and actors would share roles, with the dancers performing the “inner life” of a character.
“Septime didn’t want the actors to have the story while the dancers were decoration,” says Stanford.
“The fusion of dance and theatre, with characters speaking lines and then dancers, as those same characters, dancing their emotions, gives young audiences another tool to connect to the work,” Webre adds. “It makes the experience all the deeper.”
The Little Mermaid also uses this approach, and Stanford describes a scene at the end of the first act where it works particularly well: The Little Mermaid and the Prince share a love song, though the Prince is lying unconscious on the beach.
“At first, I thought it might be confusing,” says Stanford. “If he’s lying unconscious on the beach and then gets up and starts singing, people are going to think he’s alive again. But because everything is so stylized around them, nobody’s confused. Maybe you’re in her head or his head, and by the end of the song, the dancers go away. Something about this hybrid style allows us to enter into a dream state—a place where things can happen that actually only happen in our imagination, and not in reality.”
The team has also used dance to help explore some of the darker aspects of the story. Unlike the Disney version, this take on The Little Mermaid follows the original Hans Christian Andersen story, in which the Little Mermaid sacrifices herself for the Prince.
“It was important to us not to talk down to audiences, but to assume that kids can understand sophisticated themes, such as sacrificing something for someone you love and the power of redemption,” says Webre. “My first foray into developing work for young audiences was a collaboration with Maurice Sendak on a ballet adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are. He was a huge advocate of dealing with characters in very adult terms, and that young people would recognize the truth in the characters and ‘get it.’ In the case of Mermaid, we didn’t want to shy away from telling a complex story.”
Webre and Stanford are both passionate about how dance can add dimension to a theatre piece. “Dance is intrinsically metaphorical,” says Webre. “It can provide added depth to character development and plot points. But it’s also so damn fun, and injects energy and joy into the proceedings.”
“Dance gives you time to absorb what’s happening and the sense of emotion in a moment, without getting bogged down in plot detail,” adds Stanford. “It’s a way to streamline the story, but also to find the emotional depth that you would probably have more trouble doing in a traditional form.”
Collaborators on A Light in the Dark and The Little Mermaid agree that incorporating dance into TYA productions creates unique opportunities for artists and audiences. For one, Stanford says, it helps build the next generation of audiences. “Nationally, the ballet audience is dwindling, and here’s an audience of 20-25,000 people who are coming to Imagination Stage every summer,” she says. “Most of those kids will never have seen ballet before. It’s a great way to help kids understand ballet, both girls and boys.”
And Thodos reflects on how choreographing for young audiences doesn’t carry the stigma that more traditional TYA can. “I don’t see artists having to prove themselves because of their audience in dance the way you might in theatre,” she says.
It also opens up their eyes to other opportunities in the field beyond performing. “One of the really cool things about modern dance for young people is that they’re encouraged to choreograph,” says CCT’s Russell. “It urges them to take on leadership roles very early.”