Sunday, November 25, 2007

Alberta Dance Theater's Harry Potter

November 24-26, 2007.Lethbridge; November 29- December 2, 2007 Calgary.

The frustration of attending the opening night production of Alberta Dance Theater's production of Harry Potter was knowing that after five more performances in Alberta, this brilliant dance production would be history. It's one of those rare productions that one feels ought to be available to everyone; it ought to have gone on to tour through Canada for the next two years and then into the States and across Europe, because, by god, it was that good. Not feasible, of course, given that most of the performers are school age, but wow! Where's a CBC Arts film crew when you really need them?

Artistic Director Emily Forrest's first smart move was, of course, to pick a story that everyone knows and loves. The problem with a lot of modern dance productions is that, with the possible exception of a few aficionados, no one can figure out what the hell is going on. I have seen my share of productions of, say, "Dance of Spring" in which various figures pranced about the stage perhaps being flowers or bees or rain, or perhaps just abstractly representing their feelings about spring, but either way -- not strong on plot. Such productions are often painfully tedious, and likely not accessible to young audiences. But here we have Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, which the majority of the audience has memorized and routinely recites to each other the way my generation did Monty Python skits. Consequently, the young audience knows exactly who everyone is and had no difficulty following what's going on. Indeed, the production was so accessible that it would be the perfect introduction to modern dance for young audiences everywhere, which is again why I desperately wanted it to go on national tour. What Rowling did for reading, Forrest's production could easily duplicate for dance.

Furthermore, the Rowling factor meant the young dancers really got it, in a way they might not have even with Forrest's previous productions. I gave Lost in Space a quite positive review (NeoOpsis #8), but most of the performers were too young to have ever seen the original TV series. But Harry Potter? These kids get Harry Potter, so when the choreographers collaborated with their young performers to pull out ideas for the dance routines, the level of connection, creativity, and commitment was through the roof. And it showed!

And, I was surprised to realize, dance is the perfect vehicle for Harry Potter. Forget the movies, which merely portray the parallel world of Howarts through straightforward narration and literal-minded special effects. With dance, the otherworldiness of Howarts is perfectly evoked through the smooth and fluid and natural movements of the performers, which are nevertheless still somehow not quite the way people move and interact in the real world. The hidden connectedness between the characters and their environments that necessarily underlies any system of sympatric magic is perfectly portrayed by the rhythmic coordination of 50 dancers interacting on stage.

Another smart move by Forrest was not to try to cram the entire first novel into a 70 minute dance performance. Instead, she and choreographers selected key scenes, and because there was no attempt to follow Harry's moment by moment through the book, were free to develop these from the viewpoint of other participants. For example, rather than the scene in which a mountain troll invades Hogwarts, we are shown trolls in their home environment; we see the Hogwart ghosts interacting when students aren't there; we see the Weasley brothers' antics when they are not with Harry; and so on. Consequently, Harry and his friends stagger in and out of scenes whose existence extends in time and space beyond merely Harry's witnessing of them, thereby imbuing these locales with a greater substance and continuity than perhaps that available through the books or movies.

It is difficult to identify the production's highlights, because it was all so excellent, but you haven't seem Quidditch until you've seen it live on stage; the Sorting Hat was funny and clever, as students switched from novices to their house colors; as was Platrofrm 9and ¾;and the Mirror of Erised was a good introduction of how dance can portray abstractions. But really, it was all superb and a wonder to behold.

But wait, there's more! I loved the owls that haunted Privet Drive in the opening scene, and made the occasional appearance throughout: If Albert Dance Theatre is looking for merchandizing opportunities, these owl kites would be eminently marketable! And the owls and black cats and wizards outside Privet Drive showed up before the performance started. As soon as the doors were open, stuff was happening on stage so that there was no possibility of the younger members of the audience getting fidgety waiting for the curtain to go up. And the transitions between scenes were similarly handled by projecting videotape of the girls brainstorming their favorite bits from the first book or waiting in line outside a bookstore to buy the final installment. It's an inspired solution because it not only allowed them to get up to 50 dancers and their scenery off stage and set up for the next round without ever slowing the pace, but simultaneously brought any audience members that may have forgotten some bit of business in the book back up to speed through the girls' discussion. And have I mentioned the sets yet? Inspired use of very simple props and backdrops. Indeed, the entire production was flawless.

Most impressive of all was that Alberta Dance Theater was able to get all 50 girls, some of them very young, to such a high level of professionalism. I saw very few missteps the entire performance opening night, and even those blended seamlessly into context (because Quidditch players are going to fumble occasionally, and if a student in potion's class is slightly out of step, isn't that just the reality of any classroom?) Not only the dancing, but the acting was near flawless.

This was quite simply the most enjoyable dance production I have ever attended, and I am very sorry you weren't there to see it.

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