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Septime Webre’s Wild Things

This article by Nicole Plett was published

in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February 18, 1998. All rights reserved.

The night Max put on his wolf suit — and

collaborators

Maurice Sendak and Septime Webre brought his voyage to "Where

the Wild Things Are" to the ballet stage — was a night of

uncommon theatrical magic. American Repertory Ballet’s production

that combined the efforts of renowned author, illustrator, librettist,

and designer Sendak with the choreography of Webre, recreated the

modern children’s classic with extravagant beauty and impeccable

stagecraft.

Now this "Where the Wild Things Are" makes a second debut

at the State Theater with a brand-new score by New York composer Randy

Woolf. Performances are at the State Theater, Saturday, February 21,

at 8 p.m., and Sunday, February 22, at 2 p.m. Sharing the concert

program is the world premiere of an as-yet-untitled ballet by

Alexandre

Proia, visiting ballet master to ARB and former New York City Ballet

soloist, and "Sleep Study," a comic pajama ballet by David

Parsons. The performances herald the ascendant company’s 11-city

spring

tour of "Where the Wild Things Are."

Since the prize-winning debut of Sendak’s storybook in 1963,

"Where

the Wild Things Are" has become one of the top 10 children’s

best-sellers

of all time. The ballet was the brainchild of Penny Wiggins of Ballet

South in Savannah who helped the avuncular Sendak and the

TV-generation

choreographer Webre find each other.

Webre explains how the libretto that he and Sendak developed for the

ballet was expanded from the original story. "The story’s text

is very sparse and poetic and simple," he says. "I felt very

strongly that the choreography had not only to tell the story, but,

more importantly, it had to abstract the energy inherent in Maurice’s

drawings."

The spectacle opens on a 20-foot-high stage curtain featuring the

massive visage of a single Wild Thing. In a magical mastery of scale,

the boy Max, danced by the 5-foot 10-inch Stephen Shropshire, emerges

in his wolf suit from a homemade tent and everything else expands

accordingly. In one of the many acts of verisimilitude that makes

this work a success, the production exactly mimics the storybook’s

scale. From the elegant forest that rises up out of Max’s bedroom,

to his lonely voyage "through night and day and in and out of

weeks and almost over a year," to the marvelous sight of the

massive

Wild Things, this a rare experience for bedtime readers of all ages.

The movements Webre creates for the little-big hero Max mirror the

awkward vernacular of any six-year-old: he raises his arms and

brandishes

imaginary claws like a threatening animal, or tucks them impatiently

into his armpits. And his recurrent, accelerating sequences of five

pirouettes nicely conjures a small boy’s targeted fury.

Among the ballet’s extra scenes are Max’s fat aunts,

uncles, and cousins who sweep into Max’s play space, smothering and

all but devouring him. Max’s mother appears twice, first in a comic

Martha Graham, modern dance parody, performed in travesty (with vacuum

cleaner) by one of the company’s men. A more tame, but uncannily

similar,

Mama, danced by a woman, appears as part of Max’s reverie at his

campaign

tent. There is also a dance interlude for the two sinuous sea

creatures

encountered by Max each time he sails his little boat from his bedroom

to where the Wild Things are.

Demanding pride of place in this story, of course, are the five

fantastical

Wild Things, transmogrified from their storybook pages into

three-dimensions,

to "gnash their terrible teeth and roll their terrible eyes and

show their terrible claws." These 10-foot monsters are a joy to

behold, although, in the debut production, their very virtue of scale

seemed to limit movement. Rather than the complicated antics

choreographed

in Sendak’s evocative illustrations, Webre had to settle for a parade

effect of striding steps and hops in place.

For the new production, however, Webre announces that the original

giant Wild Things puppet forms have been replaced with

state-of-the-art

models designed and constructed by Andrew Beneppe Studios in Brooklyn,

the house that built many of the major characters for Disney’s

"Lion

King" on Broadway.

"Our original puppets were spectacular, but because of the sheer

bulk of the machines, they had only lugubrious movement

possibilities,"

he explains. The old puppets weighed 50 pounds, with limbs operated

by adapted bicycle gears that sometimes malfunctioned. The new puppets

weigh only 10 pounds, and have an arm’s reach of up to 12 feet, all

powered by up-to-the-minute technology.

Max’s new loathsome relations have been added to the story to show

how the young Max might have fallen into such a bad temper.

"When Maurice was working on the book in the early 1960s, he took

memories of his recent immigrant Eastern European aunts and uncles

as his inspiration," says Webre. "They only spoke Yiddish

and he found them very big and loud and grotesque. So these relatives

make an entrance in this ballet. And their entrance is what really

stirs Max up. His frustration with them taunting and almost devouring

him is what initiates the ballet’s action."

For the 1996 debut production, Sendak and Webre re-used for their

ballet a modern opera score, based on the book, by British composer

Oliver Knussen. Webre says that although he became fond of the music,

in the weeks leading up to premiere he and Sendak "both felt that

while the score worked as a musical piece, it was not particularly

suitable for dancing. "We agreed that the complex rhythms of the

Knussen score made it not very danceable. It seemed to created an

atmosphere of austerity, rather than the excited buoyancy that I had

tried to create in the dancing," says Webre. The duo began looking

for a new composer. "Maurice and I had gone through a year-long

process of adapting the book to a new ballet libretto, so the

structure

and the dramatic intent of the scenes have remained intact. But I

wanted it to become a bit more dance-oriented."

Woolf, who was recommended by one of his teachers,

composer

David Del Tredici, works in an eclectic blend of the serious and the

pop. "He’s a serious classicist, but throughout his college years

he composed for rock bands," says Webre. Woolf’s recent

commissions

include works for the Seattle Symphony, the Kronos Quartet, and the

Dogs of Desire Orchestra. A new score also meant a new round of

collaborative

effort.

"For Maurice there were many musical criteria, but another

important

criteria was that Maurice like him — and that there be some

creative

energy between the three of us," says Webre. Creating the score

was a new venture, "a bit like the one that drove Tchaikovsky

mad," says Webre, referring to the way the 19th-century Russian

choreographer Marius Petipa kept ordering up four more measures of

this or that mood music for his now-mythic ballet

"Nutcracker."

"Essentially it’s very eclectic, a serious pop score," says

Webre. A variation on a Bach cello invention section has, at Webre’s

request, become the work’s leitmotif. There is also a klezmer-inspired

section for Max’s stifling relatives, and a blues section for a new

dance for Max’s bedraggled toys. The ballet score includes a few

vocals

at crucial moments in the story. Because the score includes a lot

of produced elements, it has been created as a performance tape that

the company will also use on tour.

Webre says that Sendak, at age 70, is "very lively and boisterous,

and generous, too. And we’re not just collaborators, we’re good

friends

now. He’s a self-admitted workaholic, still working actively, and

involved in theater and opera." Sendak’s focus on the performing

arts has included designs for the operas "The Magic Flute"

and "Idomeneo," and ballets "The Nutcracker" and

"Hansel

and Gretel." He is artistic director of his own theater company,

the Night Kitchen.

Webre, who grew up with "Where the Wild Things Are," would

like to see this collaborative effort become a classic in another

genre. "I see Max and the story as a strong metaphor for something

that we all experience. That is that Max — and any of us —

are sometimes faced with frustration and anger, our own personal

demons.

And, like Max, we need to look to ourselves and confront them."

— Nicole Plett

Where the Wild Things Are, American Repertory

Ballet ,

State Theater, New Brunswick, 732-246-7469. $14-$28. Saturday,

February 21, 8 p.m., and Sunday February 22, 2 p.m.

The Wild Rumpus Ball, American Repertory Ballet,

The Forrestal at Princeton, 609-921-7758. The benefit for ARB and

Princeton Ballet takes the ballet as its theme. $125-$250.

Saturday,

March 7, 7:30 p.m.


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