DANCEWORKS AND FIRST STAGE COLLABORATE ON FIRST RATE PERFORMANCE ART
The under five (years of age) set sits transfixed at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center watching First Stage Children’s Theater World Premiere of Lois Ehlert's Mole Hill Stories. While the narrator walks slowly around the theater picking on a South African kalimba, or wooden finger piano, the audience will be mesmerized by the instrument’s soothing melody. The music opened this delightful combination of Lois Ehlert stories adapted by Alvaro Saar Rios where a fox, mole, owl and skunk overcome the wild forest by discovering true friendship.
Mole Hill Stories represents the first collaboration between Milwaukee’s Danceworks Performance Company and First Stage, and then adds bilingual dialogue in Spanish with comfortable ease. Director Desiree Rosas discussed the production’s combinations of three Mole Hill plots from the award winning Ehlert’s picture book collection. What transpires on the stage for the audience could be termed performance art. Rosas explains, “The performance is equal parts dance and theater, where the movement and text intertwine.”
“There’s storytelling through movement,” Rosas continues. Indeed, Danceworks’ Artistic Director Dani Kuepper choreographed the story where the actors resonate as dancers, literally breathing life in these stories through the body movements representing animal creatures, fire, grass, trees and water. Rosas believes, “You make an immediate connection to the forest stories and immerse yourself in the dance, music, words and songs.”
Music becomes integral to the production with an original score by Julio Pabon, who teaches at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. His African-Latin themed music echoes the dual script, where an English line will be spoken with the Spanish translation to follow, or vice versa. Set against the lilting, rhythmic percussion, these two languages flow freely for adults and children to enjoy, learn and understand.
All these elements seamlessly integrate in Ehlert’s charming animal characters. First Stage actor Michael Cotey plays the fox and owl with leadership pizzazz while Rána Roman flies through the forest as the exotic and at first glance selfish Cucú bird. Each give their character an exciting human personality. Christal Wagner and Alberto J. Cambra come from Danceworks’ to enhance the ensemble with their considerable skills. Young performers Haley Carter (of the Paws Cast) became the main mole Topo, who walks through every story with a sensitive heart, while Javier Pabon (Julio’s son) sparked his skunk with enthusiastic style.
Pale blue costumes with tie dyed borders designed by Andrea Bouck beautifully allow the actors/dancers freedom that also imparts an ethereal, magical atmosphere to this forest folk tale. Yet, elegant headdresses, sashes and vests create a unique animal character the audience can differentiate and have fun with.
The charming collaboration reflects over 18 months of discussion to bring this full on sensory experience to these little ones, which as Rosas says, “Envelopes the audience in an environment, where you believe, hear and see things.” Part of that charm Ehlert writes about and Rosa believes, “Involves lovable characters, who then go on big journeys, take big risks and form great friendships.”
In this first rate world premiere adaptation of Ehlert, the production brings an introductory experience of dance and live performance to these young future theatergoers in the most professional manner. More of an interpretative modern dance combined with lyrical poetry and prose, the First Stage production enchants any age and proves children’s theater remains essential to education and entertainment. Offering a promise of hope to these tiny individuals in the making while hugs and smiles during the performance are extras to any First Stage First Steps production. Each can be enjoyed liberally before, during or after this entrancing Mole Hill Stories.
First Stage Children's Theater presents Lois Ehlert's Mole Hill Stories in a collaboration with Danceworks Performance Company at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center through January 27. A special audiotry performance on January 19 continues the company's commitment to providing entertainment experiences for those on the Autism spectrum. Remember to support First Stage through their 19th Annual Make Believe Ball on Saturday, March 2, 2013. For further information or tickets, please call 414.267.2936 or click the First Stage link to the left. by Peggy Sue Dunigan