Young performers dance a book.
by Amy Brunvand
It's mid-February and the Children's Dance Theatre production of "Dream Stealer" is scheduled to open at the Capitol Theatre the last week in March. About 300 kids will be dancing, some of them as young as seven. The costumes still need to be designed and sewn; the music has not yet been entirely written; the dancers are still figuring out their choreography. Nonetheless Mary Ann Lee, director of the Virginia Tanner Creative Dance Program, isn't worried. The final revised version of the script was put in her hands just yesterday and that's soon enough so that she's certain all the pieces are going to fall into place. "I'm through with panic," she says. "Now I'm beginning to be excited!"
The script in question is a for a modern dance performance based on a children's book by Stephen E. Cosgrove. A goblin sneaks into the bedrooms of sleeping children to steal their good dreams and replace them with nightmares. A big brother and his pesky little sister (with the help of a wizard-like librarian) travel to the Phantom Forest to find the dream stealer and retrieve their lost dreams.
"It's important to choose pieces with universal appeal, where the message is worthy of the dancers," says Lee, who especially likes the book's themes of imagination and how ideas from books can have the power to manifest dreams in real life. "The language is beautiful and descriptive of the mood, and the illustrations are extraordinary," she says, turning the pages to a picture of a red-bearded gnome in pointy jester's shoes. He is riding on a fluffy white goat and he actually looks a bit more lonely than nightmarish. Then Lee points out an illustration of the librarian, Bartholomew, who wears a purple robe and has streaming white hair. For Lee, the picture evokes a magic moment, "when you walk into a library and you smell the smell of books. You're all alone in the stacks and you want to take down all the books at once and there is a wonderful feeling of possibilities opening up."
The process of turning a picture book into a dance means finding a way to communicate the big ideas and make the story work on stage. The script in hand describes narration and action in detail, but the heart and soul of the performance is the dancing, and that is mentioned only in terse notations such as: NIGHTMARES: Misha Bergman 8th Grade, PHANTOM FOREST: Ann Carter 5th Grade, FIREFLIES: Mimi Silverstein 3rd Grade, INVISIBLE PATHWAYS: Rachel Kimball 4th Grade.
Some of these ideas are fairly straightforward to personify. Inspiration for the Fireflies came from a poem by Paul Fleischman which firefly-wrangler Miss Mimi is delighted to recite for the sheer pleasure of pronouncing the words, "…Insect calligraphers; copying sentences; six-legged scribblers…" Dances that represent the stolen dreams were created by young dancers who wrote down dreams of their own, and then found a way to express their written words in movement. The nightmares are based on an antique definition of "nightmare" as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it: "a female spirit or monster supposed to settle on and produce a feeling of suffocation in a sleeping person or animal."
Rather than literal characters, some dances create a mood. In one studio, Invisible Pathways dancers are visually describing a maze of a forest in a dance that features motifs from children's games altered to look slightly sinister. In another studio, Ann Carter reminds her creatures of the Phantom Forest to keep their arms strong as they practice earthy, grounded African-inspired movements. Despite their efforts, the petite fifth graders seem hardly more weighty than a flock of birds. Watching them rehearse, it becomes apparent why having a dance company made up of children makes sense. The kids dance with movement that is playful, ethereal, skittish, and entirely distinct from the stolid gravity-bound dancing of adults. Sometimes the force of movement seems almost stronger than the dancers, and it moves them like dry leaves in a gust
of wind. They are incredibly beautiful.
As Lee points out, Children's Dance Theatre is a company of professional dancers who are children, and they aren't just preparing a recital for an uncritical audience of proud parents. There are two community performances for paying audiences, but the largest audience for this show is also the hardest to please – 6,000 school kids from all over Salt Lake Valley. In fact, Lee says that watching the reaction of young audiences is one of the best ways to read whether a show is working. If kids think it's boring, they aren't shy about acting bored.
The only two adult roles in Dream Stealer are RDT dancer Nathan Shaw as the librarian, and the brilliant choreographer Natosha Washington as the dream stealer. The performance features live music composed by Tristan Moore, who is known for innovative blends of acoustic and electronic sounds. So even though Dream Stealer is a dance performance aimed squarely at children, it's also for all those grown-ups who sometimes sneak a look at the picture books after the kids have gone to bed.
Amy Brunvand is a dance enthusiast and a librarian at the University of Utah.