Ben’s Trumpet

by Kay Bourne

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday June 3, 2009

Rey Guity as Ben and Ilanga as the Trumpeter in Ben’s Trumpet.
Rey Guity as Ben and Ilanga as the Trumpeter in Ben’s Trumpet.   

Tony Williams' The Urban Nutcracker (now going into its 9th season) has been wonderfully successful; his new choreographed dance sensation Ben's Trumpet deserves a similar future.

Co-sponsored by Wheelock Family Theater - and being danced at their attractive house on the Fenway - the world premiere, based on Rachel Isadora's 1979 Caldecott Award winning picture book Ben's Trumpet, is every bit as exuberant, imaginative, endearing and expressive as the Tchaikovsky/Duke Ellington hybrid. You can see this extraordinary theatrical dance concert through June 7, Friday or Saturday at 7:30 pm or matinees Saturday at 1 pm or Sunday at 3 pm.

The BalletRox at WFT Production is actually three dances culminating in Ben's Trumpet. It's a program that favors narrative, although the opening piece only in its derivation.

First, there's the elegant, frothy La Favorita (a 15-minute selection from the 4-act opera) choreographed by Williams in 1994 to music by bel canto composer Gaetano Donizetti and nicely exhibiting the traditional ballet artistry of five of Williams' in-house professional dance corps: Matt Anctil, Caroline Cohn, Janelle Gilchrist, Autumn Hill, and Olga Marchenko.

That work is paired with choreographer Samuel Kurkjian's animated and witty staging of Serge Prokofiev's entertaining classic introduction for children to the orchestral musical instruments, Peter and The Wolf (as narrated by Leonard Bernstein). Interestingly, there is an historical tie-in with Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker: When the Children's Theatre Centre was opened in Moscow in March of 1936, Prokofiev attended the first concert and was tickled at how enthusiastically the children responded to The Nutcracker Suite. The manager of the center noticed Prokofiev's pleasure and asked him to write an orchestral fairy-tale that would help children understand more about the instruments of the orchestra. Prokofiev also wrote the text for the narrator to speak. He first called it How Petya Outwitted the Wolf but changed the title when he realized it gave away the drama's outcome. The work which he wrote very quickly debuted only a month or so following Nutcracker.

Matt Ancti, who nicely served as the sole male dancer in La Favorita, made an appealing Peter whose na?ve boldness and compassion for the imperiled bird and duck is very boyish. The wolf danced by Rick Vigo was suitably scary (his red eyes and mangy fur enhanced his terrifying demeanor). Olga Marchenko was an hilarious duck whose confusion leads to tragedy, while Autumn Hill twittered for all her worth as the Bird who knew to get into a tree when danger approaches. The rubbery Yo-el Cassell made a wonderfully predatory cat with one eye on the bird as a tasty treat and the other on the wolf who posed a danger. Illanga was apt, hobbling along as the crotchety grandfather. Kimber Lynn Drake, Kamau Hashim, and Joe Gonzales were the sort of hunters that keep the rest of us indoors during hunting season.

Both La Favorita, which was a study in dark pink and frosty white, and Peter with its furry and feathery animals, the hunters garbed in bold plaids, and grand dad, like Peter, in traditional Russian peasant clothes were marvelously costumed by Clyde Nantais (a founder of the Boston Dance Company with James Reardon in 1992).

Ben's Trumpet tells a story inspired, perhaps, by the 19th century philosopher and woodsman Henry David Thoreau, who advised "let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away." The 8 or 9 year old Ben so adores the jazz he hears drifting from the clubs in his Roxbury neighborhood that he plays a pretend trumpet on the sidewalk outside. The other children tease him, but the jazz players understand. The story is set in the 1940s when jitter buggers flocked to ballrooms or elegant supper clubs to dance to the big bands.

Choreographer Williams has largely followed Isadora's text, which is told mostly through her black ink and pencil Art Deco-style illustrations that convey the intensity of the music so well they seem to pulsate off the page. It makes sense that Williams would be so simpatico with Isadora as both of them were dancers and, coincidently, both with the Boston Ballet during their dancing careers. Isadora's career as a children's book author/illustrator began when a foot injury forced her to leave dancing. Her impressive string of children's books includes On Your Toes, which illustrates ballet terms from A to Z for the very youngest dancers. She has a knack for story telling that appeals to adults as well as children - a gift she shares with Tony Williams.

On opening night Rey Guity, who looks very much as Isadora drew the character, played Ben (two other youngsters alternate in the part on other nights). A lively dancer, he's also a good little actor. The trumpeter who has caught Ben's heart was danced well by Ilanga, who emanates a caring persona. Ben lives in a muli-generational household with a grandmother whose ample figure provides a cozy lap for the child to cuddle in and confide his dream to play the trumpet, nicely played by Doris J. Smith. His parents, a stay-at-home mom and a debonair dad, are dancers Kimber Lynn Drake and Gilbert White, who can swing around the living room as they must have once cut the rug in the clubs; a nice portrayal from both of them.

The poker players Yo-el Cassell, Alex Levine, Gilbert White, and John Wyche bring some zest to the game with their by-play and stepping about in a rousing interlude. Later Cassell, well known to BalletRox audiences for his humorous dancing as Mini-Meyer in Nutcracker, brings that verve to the role of the maitre'd in a club scene that harkens back to the days when clubbing was a fancy night out although feelings could run high should a gent flirt inappropriately with another man's date. Kamau Hashim has a funny bit as the chef whose dish disappoints.

The smart set design by Charles Baldwin, which strikingly approximates Isadora's illustrations from a cityscape to the Zig Zag Club's marquee, won enthusiastic, well deserved applause when the curtains parted to begin this piece. The mood and changing times of day were further accentuated by Scott Clyve's lighting design. The costumes by Dustin Todd Rennells were a sumptuous recollection of when men wore their hats acey ducey and women dressed to the nines to go out clubbing.

Congratulations are in order to the sound design and technical side of the evening in which words play a crucial role. First, there is Bernstein's taped witty chat with the children in the audience and his description of the action in the Peter and The Wolf. Later, the lyrics from jazz standards sung by everyone from Louis Armstrong, Hot Lips Page, Billie Holliday, the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra and the Mills Brothers to Ella Fitzgerald with the Chick Webb Orchestra are part of the sound track for Ben's Trumpet, (and integral to Williams's inventive choreography). The speaker system broadcasts both the narration and the Big Band era music so that they can be heard distinctly but not blasted at you.

Words and lyrics are unusual aspects to an art that is usually accompanied by orchestral arrangements. For dance enthusiasts interested in innovation, Williams' investigation into the rhythm of words is one of the important draws to this production. Also, Williams has capitalized on the element of conversation to devise his choreography. Luckily he has dancers who are lively actors who interact well with one another, along with enjoying the dancing feats Williams asks of them.

The dances for the 35 or so children in Ben's Trumpet, who are a delight in the concert, also evidence Williams' interest in aspects of rhythm with his choreography of the playground beats such as skipping rope, hand clapping games, hop scotch, and the ball coming off the bat in a pick up baseball game. Joining the children is an organ grinder who juggles as well played with charm by Myron Allukian, Jr.

There is a carry-over of the incidental beat as well to the adults who snap their fingers sometimes to the music and pick up on the rhythms through their swagger and strut.

For some reason this writer doesn't comprehend, Boston dance movers and shakers have never really warmed up to jazz dancing, excepting for the annual visit of the Alvin Ailey Dance Troupe, seeming to put their imprimatur only on the more abstract or traditional work. They're missing out if they don't take this opportunity to re-evaluate the importance of dance to a jazz beat and to the innovative interest in the narrative in dance that choreographer Tony Williams brings to the stage.

Through June 7 @ the Wheelock Family Theatre, 180 The Riverway, Boston, Mass. For the performance schedule and more information visit the Wheelock Family Theatre’s website.