Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
I think it's a fair guess that many of my fellow audience members at Animal Dance were having their first live performance experience. These were delightfully engaged 2, 3, and 4 year olds, the target audience for the show now at Children's Theater Company. Animal Dance is an improvised work in which the show's creator, dancer Ann Carlson, shares her performing area with a series of live animalsa rabbit, a tortoise, a dog, a pair of midget goats, a chicken and a goldfish. In each case, she creates dances that mirror the posture, movements, facial mannerisms and, in the case of the chicken, the sounds of each animal.
Carlson is a small-framed woman of a certain age, with a lithe and lively body and a shock of white hair cut to enhance her resemblance to a pixie. She wears a bright yellow flared pantsuit and red sneakers that draw the young eyes to her, and she begins the performance by creating dances on her own, before her first co-star hops in. She begins with an "arm dance," which she announces to the audience, gracefully moving her arms through the air, following them with the rest of her body. And then she introduces all manner of other danceshand dances, elbow dances, blinking dances, straight line dances across the stage, straight line dances up and down, tongue dances, on and oneach an expression of simplicity, ease and joy. She shows us that any movement can be a dance. The spirit and intentionality with which we move is what makes that movement a dance. Then, one by one, her animal partners enter and she applies the same inventive notion of dance to them.
Several times, before the next animal enters the stage, Carlson points to places on the floor and proclaims "poop." She then retrieves a paper towel from the wings and cleans up the souvenirs left by her co-stars, spelling out and repeating the word poop in the most matter of fact way, and to the delighted approval of the small fry in attendance. Her final dance partner, the goldfish, arrives in a glass bowl perched upon a pedestal lit from below, so that the bowl becomes luminescent and the fish is seen enlarged through the convex fishbowl walls. Performed with lights narrowing in on her and the fish, she perfectly draws the children's attention to a central focus, from which she is able to calmly bring the show to its end.
The children love the performance. They delight in the animals, and find enormous humor in Carlson's impersonations of each one's unique qualities. Her language and tone speak directly to them. She has a warm and reassuring presence, so that even the youngest audience members feel safe and included in what she has come to share with them. With children sitting on cushions and very low benches in front, adults in outer semi-circles of chairs, it is a testament to the atmosphere she creates that not a single one of the children cried or wandered toward the exit. A few moved back and forth between their seats up front and their adult in back, but not once in a disruptive manner.
For Animal Dance's 45-minute duration, Carlson is accompanied by Victor Zupanc's score, with percussive, jazzy sounds of a child's piano that also mirror the rhythms and pace of each of the animals. The simple set is an astro-turf stage area with fencing to keep the animals contained across the front, a rear wall that is a blue sky topped with cotton candy cloud images. The set, light, costume and sound design all work to support the one simple focus of this work.
Is Animal Dance dance or theater? One can see it either way. Certainly, dance is at the core of what Carlson does, but the element of planned surprise and her interplay with the audience as she narrates her dance-making bring the piece to the threshold of theater as well. It does not really matter. It is performance and it stimulates the imagination, powers of observation, attentiveness, and curiosity of its audience. It leaves them both fully satisfied and wishing for more. Carlson's invented movements and simple language are directly accessible to the children, yet challenge them to consider their own creative impulses. What a wonderful introduction to performing arts.
As an adult, I found equal parts of pleasure watching Ms. Carlson and her animal dance partners, and observing the rapt faces of children in thrall with her performance. Years from now, will some of them remember Animal Dance when asked about their first experience with a live performance? It seems a wonderful place for them to begin.
Animal Dance continues at the Children's Theatre Company's Cargill Stage through May 1, 2016, 2400 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis. Tickets are $21.00 for adults; $16.00 for children 17 and under, college students, seniors 62 and up and military personnel. For tickets call 612- 874-0400 or go to childrenstheatre.org. Recommended for preschoolers.
Choreographed and Directed by: Ann Carlson, with Peter C. Brosius; Composer and Sound Design: Victor Zupanc; Scenic Design: Torry Bend; Costume Design: Kym Longhi; Lighting Design: Craig A. Gottschalk; Dramaturg: Elissa Adams; Early Childhood and Animal Consultant: Patty Born Selly; Assistant Director: Ben Hanna; Stage Managers: Jenny R. Friend and Kathryn Sam Houkom; Assistant Stage Manager: Jenny Brass.
Cast: Ann Carlson