When “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” opened June 20 at Imagination Stage, it was the culmination of years of teamwork.
There was the unprecedented and interesting partnership between the Imagination Stage and the Washington Ballet, which began in 2010. There were the actor and dancer duos tasked with portraying the range of emotions in the same character. There were the team of puppeteers responsible for bringing the 10-foot lion, Aslan, king of Narnia, to life.
The result is a show Imagination Stage artistic director Janet Stanford calls “an epic story that is a unique hybrid between ballet, puppetry and dance.”
Stanford, who said she never was a fan of the original musical theater version of C.S. Lewis’s 1950 classic, wanted to bring her own version of the show to Imagination Stage for the first time. And Septime Webre, artistic director at the Washington Ballet, was looking for a show for his younger performers in the summer.
As Stanford’s interpretation of the beloved story — the tale of four siblings who discover a wardrobe leading to the magical world of Narnia — began to develop, she realized Webre and his partner in choreography, David Palmer, had just the tool she needed to bring her vision to life: dance.
“Septime felt very strongly that the children, as protagonists, should be represented by dancers,” Stanford said. “He had done this with ‘The Great Gatsby,’ and [we] loved it. We felt a similar convention could work for this show.”
Stanford, who directed the show, said her interpretation draws on the spirituality of the book, which she felt was lacking from the musical theater version. Using two performers to portray each of the four main characters allowed her to “open the main characters up and show the literal journey and the spiritual journey at the same time,” she said. “It’s sort of like how we all live two lives, our walking-through-every-day life and our spiritual life.”
The actor and dancer duos also allow for a greater range of emotion and deeper insight into each character’s thoughts.
“It allows both the real and surreal to be in place at the same instance,” Palmer said. “There’s one side of things where you can voice or state an action, and then with the physicality of the dance in the same moment in time, we can show you what’s in the mind of the actor.”
Actor Rafael Cuesta said the dancers “take my words and they put them in boldface.” Cuesta plays the speaking and singing role of Edmund, one of the middle children, while Dan Savetta, a trained ballet dancer, performs the movement.
“He gets to be the expression of my inner monologues,” Cuesta said.
Although Cuesta said he left most of the dancing to Savetta, he wasn’t entirely off the hook. There wasn’t always room for an easy transition from actor to dancer onstage, and vice versa. So Cuesta and other actors had to learn some choreography, too.
“It’s been really neat,” said Cuesta, who added that he now can successfully complete a double turn. “I’ve used muscles in my body that I’ve never used before.”
Stanford said this is no ordinary ballet. “You’re not going to see any pointe shoes or tutus,” she said.
It’s the show’s unconventional nature that the actors, directors and choreographers hope will draw younger audiences to the show.
“I hope ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’ serves as a port of entry into the world of ballet,” Webre said.
“The majority of kids have never ever been to a ballet in their life,” Stanford said.
Cuesta said he hopes the interaction between the actors and dancers, along with the power and strength of the performers, will make some children, especially young boys, reconsider their thoughts about dance.
“I hope some kids will say, ‘Hey, I want to do that,’ ” Cuesta said.
As far as another collaboration in the future, all parties seem to think it is a possibility.
“We always enjoy their creative pulses,” Palmer said of the team at Imagination Stage. “We would all hope we could find another project down the road.”