'Harold and the Purple Crayon' is child's dance wander-land

By Nelson Pressley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 15, 2010

What is the dance equivalent of Crockett Johnson's simple crayon meander in the classic bedtime book "Harold and the Purple Crayon"? That's the challenge that Hubbard Street 2, the young professional troupe of Chicago's Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, alluringly solved in its one-afternoon-only world premiere Saturday at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater.

For starters, choreographers Terence Marling and Robyn Mineko Williams selected tunes by eclectic indie rocker Andrew Bird, whose electric violin- and guitar-driven songs lent a wandering, happily curious quality to Harold's adventures. And for familiarity's sake, since the target audience was kids age 4 and up, Ryan Wineinger supplied imaginative projections based on Johnson's iconic solid purple line drawings.

Fittingly, though, Johnson's original was just an outline for this free-roaming performance. Lines of narration here and there launched cushiony, fluid dances as Harold roams his subconscious before really falling asleep. There are no birds in Johnson's book, for instance, yet Alice Klock and David Schultz were an evocative and twitchy pair, heads moving alertly and arms flapping smoothly. On the other hand, Johnson's mini-saga does feature a mountain, which for Marling and Williams inspired a long, kinetic sequence with the full cast -- six young dancers -- pressing and twisting in patterns that shifted like clouds in the wind.

You can see why the choreographers thought of Bird for the music. The squiggles in Bird's violin lines sometimes match the squiggles in Johnson's drawings (especially during the ocean scene, naturally), and the mood ranges from soothing to joyful while never straying far from mellow. Bird's instincts are a little Beatlesesque -- late Beatles, that is, upbeat but introspective and winding -- and the choreography followed suit.

Jamal Rashann Callender, the first of the six pajama-clad dancers to play Harold, writhed in an oversize bed before rolling out and stretching to and fro, and his big, muscled body gracefully executed Harold's gangly, awkward kid motions. The melodies and movements were wide-eyed, innocent and perpetual; the dances didn't explode, though there was an exuberant interlude driven by Gypsy music when Harold creates his many pies, and the wit of this bit neatly crested into farce. The choreography didn't rest much, either, yet it was never antic.

The hour-long show is billed as interactive: kids are encouraged to draw in the air with their fingers or to clap and stomp in rhythm as the dancers, in folding chairs at the front of the stage, gradually leave their seats and quicken the pace in elaborate riffs on the beat. That's a late-show wake-up device for youngsters, perhaps, and nothing to do with the book. But, like most of this liquid dance a la Harold, it was confident and lovely.

Pressley is a freelance writer.

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