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The Lion, the Witch et al

This article by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

January 7, 1998. All rights reserved.

Although everyone goes to `The Nutcracker’ ballet every

year, a lot of people — especially families — don’t have a

tradition of going to modern dance performances at all," says

Randy James, artistic director of the New Brunswick-based modern dance

company, Randy James Dance Works. "Before I started my company

four years ago, I had been looking for a full-length, evening work

— some kind of story, that would help build an audience for us,

that would make a tradition."

Although "The Nutcracker" was never considered by the young

modern dance company, that beloved tale did lead James to the

company’s

first full-length work, created for audiences of all ages, "The

Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," based on the C.S. Lewis

children’s

classic.

"The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," performed by a company

of 15 dancers, has its world premiere at George Street Playhouse in

New Brunswick, on Saturday and Sunday, January 10 and 11, with

performances

at 1 and 4 p.m. each day.

It was James’ seven-year-old goddaughter, Sarah Krauss, a veteran

performer of three seasons in "The Nutcracker" with the

American

Repertory Ballet, who suggested to James that he stage the dramatic

story of four children embroiled in magic — both good and evil

— in the land of Narnia.

"I don’t mind saying that my goddaughter is brilliant — and

this was a brilliant idea," says James. "I still remembered

the story from when I was a child. It has so many great characters,

and so many messages, about good against evil, redemption, and

forgiveness."

Staging such a complex story was a challenge. "I had never

choreographed

a story before," he says, "not one where dancers take and

keep a character throughout two acts." Simplicity was one obvious

key to making this first chronicle of Narnia comprehensible to

children

and their parents. "The most important things I remembered from

the book, the things that were most interesting, happened in Narnia.

So we have one scene at home in the beginning, and the rest of the

story is set in Narnia."

The characters that struck James as most appropriate for a modern

dance work are the woodland nymphs and the faun, Mr. Tumnus. James

recognized these characters as natural inhabitants of a modern dance

world founded by Isadora Duncan — whose dances often conjured

up visions of free-spirited sprites — and the legendary dancer

Nijinsky, known for his choreography of "Afternoon of a Faun."

"The character of the witch has so many possibilities," says

James. "When you first see her, you know she’s evil, but she’s

enticing. Like any sin — like Turkish delight — it’s

attractive

and intriguing at first. We have her first entrance on a sled drawn

by reindeer, accompanied by the wolf Maugrim. A bad person always

has a sidekick, and the wolf is our witch’s main sidekick."

The story’s climactic battle happens very quickly in the book, James

notes, but he thought a battle would be an interesting choreographic

challenge, particularly for all 15 dancers. His dance version appears

to be less weepy than the book. "Our Lion is dead for less than

three minutes," says James. "There’s a mourning dance by the

two young girls in which they express their pure love for him, and

this breathes life back into him. So the story has a celebratory

ending."

Everything is designed for family fun. "There’s a lot to see and

hear in dance — movement, music, sets, costumes — and I

believe

you should make the audience work a bit, but some artists make their

audiences work too much. They live in an ivory tower," says James.

"My hope is that people will see modern dance in a different way

— we’re not always wearing unitards and crawling around like

insects.

There are no rules to modern dance, it’s so inclusive." Those

who tried to deconstruct modern dance, he says, succeeded only in

making it inaccessible to many. "Somehow it got away from real

life and real people."

James found himself auditioning all types of already composed music,

everything from Billy Holiday to bluegrass. Then it struck him that

this classic story, with modern choreography and modern costumes,

needed one classic artist at its center. "The project was so huge

and scary, I realized I should go totally for Mozart," says James.

He adapted scores featuring harp and flute for the nymphs and

"dark

choral work" for the battle. "I think people will find the

music comforting," says James, "even though they may not be

that familiar with the modern dance form."

These performances have been funded by a $15,000 grant from the

Geraldine

R. Dodge Foundation. "They believed in the project. I couldn’t

have done it without them," he says.

With his own company of eight augmented by seven guest artists for

the production, James will not be found onstage. "My dancing days

are not totally over, but they’re near the end," he says. "Of

course I still dance a lot — when I teach, when I create movement

— I’m just not performing in public. One lesson that teacher

Bessie

Schoenberg taught me was that `If you’re in your work, you can’t see

your work.’"

Although not created exclusively for children, the work is designed

to include them. Adults may see more underlying resonances, but

children

will follow the story. "They’re the audience of the future. So

if we don’t cultivate children, there will be no modern dance

audience."

And has goddaughter Sarah consulted any further on the work?

No previews for young Sarah, says the artist. "I want her to see

the finished work with a virgin eye."

— Nicole Plett

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Randy James Dance

Works, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick,

732-246-7717. $15 adults; $12 children, students, & seniors.

Saturday

and Sunday, January 10 and 11, at 1 and 4 p.m.


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