‘Total theater’ and storytelling

Symphony, African American Dance Ensemble present ‘Babar’
Jan. 25, 2013 @ 10:42 AM

The classic children’s story of Babar the elephant will take on life and movement Saturday, when the Durham Symphony and the African American Dance Ensemble collaborate to present the music that French composer Francis Poulenc wrote based on the book by Jean de Brunhoff (“The Story of Babar the Little Elephant”).

Earlier this week, LeBrandi Johnson, Gail Rouse, David Johnson and McDaniel Roberts, members of the dance ensemble, were rehearsing some of the movements during a run-through with the symphony. After they completed their interpretation of a martial-sounding score, symphony conductor William Henry Curry looked at Chuck Davis, director of the dance ensemble, and asked him about the tempo.

“It could be faster,” Davis said. “Faster?” Curry asked. Davis, joking, said “No, that’s fine, maestro.”

In de Brunhoff’s story, Babar’s mother dies at the hands of a hunter. The hunter chases Babar, who escapes and along the way visits a city. When he returns to his homeland, the king is dead from eating a bad mushroom. Babar is made king, and in the finale, he and  Celeste are married and crowned king and queen.  

For this production, “We have incorporated total theater in keeping with our heritage, which is storytelling,” Davis said. To get ideas for how to choreograph the story, Davis said he resisted looking up previous productions on YouTube, instead reading de Brunhoff’s book while listening to a recording of Poulenc’s score, “and I just let the images flow. As you will see, much of it is guided by the script,” Davis said.

 “With me, the creative process is total. I listen to every note. I’m guided by the text,” Davis said. He and Curry also went through the score bar by bar.

The ensemble’s small budget “has allowed us to be very creative,” and the ensemble has made the costumes, masks and other props that the audience will see Saturday. David Johnson and Rouse, who both have degrees in textiles from N.C. Central University, collaborated on the costuming, and went into what Johnson calls “research mode.” To design and conceive of the costumes, they did not so much look at what past designers had done, but stayed focused on what Davis wants to put on stage. The illustrations in the book were a guide, and while audience members can tell which dancer is Babar, the character costume is not a copy of the book illustration, Johnson said.

Making the masks was “a task,” Johnson said, and he and Rouse collaborated on how the masks should look, and how they should move. “We as designers and managers of the piece, we do not want the other not to know what is going on … so it looks like a family unit,” he said.

The Poulenc piece also has narration, and at rehearsal this week Davis put on his best public speaking voice in the run-through with orchestra.

The orchestra also will play selections from Georges Bizet’s “Carmen Suite,” and the dance ensemble will perform on one of the movements of the piece. That collaboration, Davis said, happened almost serendipitously. Curry asked him to listen to a part of the piece, asked him what he thought, and the dance interpretation was born.

The Poulenc piece also has a surprise during the wedding scene for the children (no spoiler here), Davis said.

McDaniel Roberts, who dances the role of Babar, said this collaboration with a full orchestra has “taken me a little out of my element.” He usually dances to drums, percussion and traditional African music. “It’s been a wonderful and creative experience,” Roberts said. “I hope it continues, because we’ve worked so hard at this.”

Go and Do

WHAT: The Durham Symphony and the African American Dance Ensemble present “Bizet and Babar”

WHEN: Saturday, 4 p.m.

WHERE: Riverside High School Auditorium, 3218 Rose of Sharon Road, Durham

ADMISSION: General admission tickets are $15 for adults, $5 for children. To purchase, call 919-491-6576 or visit www.durhamsymphony.org. Before and after the concert, High Strung Violins will have an instrument “petting zoo,” allowing audience members to try out instruments.