On Saturday, January 30 and Sunday, January 31, Randy James’ all male dance company, 10 Hairy Legs, will dance the world premiere of James’ “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” at The New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC).
If you’re a loyal Culture Vultures reader (and really, why wouldn’t you be?!), you may remember that I have covered the 10 Hairy Legs dance company once before. In my post from last year, I discussed the genesis of the company; the really interesting perspective of its founder and artistic director, Randy James; and the role of male dancers in the historical dance-o-sphere. So if you want to read that fuller discussion, please feel free to go check out that post – don’t worry, we’ll wait for you.
But for those of you looking for the short, short version, here you go:
10 Hairy Legs is an all-male dance company (originally five dancers – hence the 10 legs reference). Founded in 2012, the goal of this all-male, repertory modern dance company is to advance the understanding of the male role in dance through creating and performing exceptional work that features the tremendous emotional and technical range of the male dancer.
What fascinates me about this is that, traditionally, the role of the male dancer (in ballet, at least, my forte) is to present and support the woman. He partners her, lifts her, steadies her and showcases her. Yes, he gets to showcase his talent in his portion of the pas des deux, but it doesn’t seem to take precedence.
With 10 Hairy Legs, the man is both the presenter and the presented – traditional roles and definitions taking a backseat to the talents of each dancer. It becomes less about categories and more about the individual.
– But back to “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” Here, Randy James is changing things up again. Yes, his all-male troupe is dancing this piece, but female guest artists have also been invited to join them to dance several of the roles, including Lucy, The White Witch and nymphs.
As you might suspect from the title, this dance piece brings to life C. S Lewis’ beloved and magical novel. The classic story, set in the fictitious Narnia, features Lewis’ characters – the heroine Lucy and her brother Edmund, The White Witch, The Wolf, Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, Nymphs, a host of Angry Birds, The Giant and Aslan The Lion. The dance is set to a score comprised of works of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, including his renowned “Davidde Penitente.”
I recently had the opportunity to sit in on a rehearsal of the piece, and to speak with James and two of his dancers: Monica James (Lucy) and Robert Mark Burke (Faun).
In speaking with James, I learned that this is not the first time he has tackled “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” In 1998, he choreographed a different version of this work for his former company. He had turned to his goddaughter, who was five at the time, for a suggestion of a story to choreograph, and she suggested “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (a very well-read kid!). Although the 1998 piece was very successful, James is not one to rest on his laurels. When NJPAC approached him to work on a new full-length piece, James immediately thought to revisit and redo “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”
James’ intent for the piece is ambitious. He wants it to appeal and speak to a wide range of audiences: including kids, people who love the Lewis story, adults who are fans of modern dance and adults who don’t know anything about dance.
So pretty much everyone.
But that’s kind of the great thing about choosing a work that tells a classic story – there are a lot of entry points and layers to appreciate. As Robert Mark Burke, who dances the Faun, told me, “It’s like a good Disney or Pixar movie: there are layers that everyone can appreciate.”
If you happened to have seen the 1998 version, though, don’t think you should just skip this one. James has completely re-choreographed the entire work, which also features new costumes, lighting and scenic design.
When I asked James why he redid the piece, he said, “Well, I’m a much better choreographer now. It can be a challenge to tell a story in dance, since we rely on movement instead of words. But I’m clearer in what I want now and I want to share that vision.”
Oh, and parents: 10 Hairy Legs says that this work is suitable for those audience members ages 4 and up. So bring the kids, because it’s never too early to get them attending and loving the arts! And who knows? Maybe the experience will help inspire your kids to think of a career in dance.
The idea isn’t that far-fetched. Monica Gonzalez, a New Jersey native who portrays Lucy in this production, saw the original 1998 version as a child, and now finds herself at center stage 18 years later.
“I was just overawed at seeing performances like this,” she tells me. “I was taking dance classes at the time, and for days afterwards it was totally motivational. I just hope that people in our audience now will also feel a similar inspiration.”
One of the things I find really interesting about modern dance, in particular, is the truly collaborative nature of the choreographic process. There’s a tremendous trust that’s created among the dancers and between the dancers and choreographer. When asked about her favorite part of this rehearsal process, Gonzalez immediately pointed to the collaboration.
“Our creative process is nurtured by each other,” she said. “Alone, I couldn’t create movement like this, but together, we create something really special.”
Burke (the Faun) agreed. He tells me that James creates each segment in broad strokes, but then allows the dancers the creative freedom to dance in that space, which James then tailors to his vision.
When asked what it was like to work with the female dancers, Burke said, “It always refreshing to have new people in the [rehearsal] room. The fact that they are women just really enhances that.”
10 Hairy Legs performs the world premiere of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” on Saturday, January 30 at 2:00 and 5:00 p.m. and on Sunday, January 31 at 2:00 p.m. The performances take place at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center at 1 Center Street, Newark, NJ 07102, and are part of NJPAC’s Jersey Moves! Festival of Dance. Tickets are $39 and $29 and are available online at njpac.org or by calling the Box Office at 973-642-8989. Learn more about 10 Hairy Legs at 10HL.org.
“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” is presented in one act and is suitable for families and children ages 4 and older. Choreography by Randy James, costumes by Abraham Cruz and lighting and scenic design by John Lasiter.