Young Simba (Adrian Pierce) standing proud in a dramatic lift above flamingos and animals.
How narrative dance can work: the power and beauty of “The Lion King: A Brothers’ Tale”
In 2001, I happened to see “Shed Your Skin: The Indigo Girls Project,” at the Fox Theater in downtown Atlanta. It featured 21 members of the Atlanta Ballet (occupying most of the stage) and The Indigo Girls (Emily Saliers and Amy Ray) tucked off to one side performing several of their hits. To my way of thinking, “Shed Your Skin” was an ambitious effort and an artistic calamity. All eyes were on Emily and Amy, not on the dancers, who tried maybe too hard to be originally expressive in forcing out a narrative line. My thought: “narrative dance” is tough, and at the Fox it could not compete with the Indigo Girls and their hard-driving talent. It was Emily and Amy’s show from the gitgo, and the dancers felt at best like decoration.
But… here comes “The Lion King”
Fast forward to the Strom Theater at Camden Hills Regional High School this past weekend, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, and Kinetic Energy Alive Dance Productions’ presentation of “The Lion King: A Brothers’ Tale,” which completely turned the tables on what narrative – or storytelling – dance could bring to an audience. Forget for the moment that both shows were essentially sold out (800 seats each performance) or that the dancers received rousing standing ovations and unrestrained cheering both times. Skip over some eight months of intense rehearsing for some 60 dancers ages 6 to 75, the elaborate costuming and makeup, the clever sets that seemed to change magically at the snap of a finger, or the judiciously edited “Lion King” music tracks that helped propel the story. What worked here – as well as it possibly could have – was the dance. Strong, athletic, surprising, haunting… ranging from tearfully quiet and mournful to exultant, vibrant and commanding. Narrative dance really works here, I reminded myself, and made one of the best live performance of any kind I’ve ever seen. At the end I thought: Wow. Just wow. I was far from the only nearly moved to tears.
The show opened with a virtuoso bit of African drumming by Namory Keita of Guinea, on a traditional Guinean drum used to communicate messages across distances. “The Lion King” story, in various forms, is traditional among many Africans as a life lesson. When the curtain opened, dancers performed a “prequel” to the story, narrated by Jordan Shabani, recently moved here from Congo, laying out what happened between the lion brothers Mufasa (Peter Yanz) and Chokwadi (Kea Tesseyman), who becomes “Scar” after Mufasa swipes him across his face. And so the show launched with distinctive African accents that persisted in the spirit of the show throughout. We could easily imagine being transported to the jungle and the savanna to witness an epic family conflict playing out across its landscape.
Nuance at big scale
Dancer-choreographer-producer Kea Tesseyman, the driving force behind the project, wisely pared down the original Broadway story to digestible length and simplicity to suit narrative dance, adding some key plot changes that must have surprised those familiar with the original. It is the mandrill Rafiki (Carla White), the principal spiritual nexus of the story, who kills Scar in the end, not Simba (played by Adrian Pierce as an adolescent, and Jacob Adams as an adult). BUT: after stabbing Scar with her “juju” stick (I don’t know what else to call it), Rafiki collapses over Scar’s body, mourning his death. Rafiki is a nourisher of all the souls of the animals, including those who have gone astray. It’s the kind of nuanced depth and complexity that is beyond the usual scope of Broadway or Disney.
Rafiki (Carla White) atop Pride Rock.
The Jungle Birds’ ballroom dance, to “Can You Feel The Love Tonight”
Several of the scenes and numbers were startling for their beauty or action. The “jungle birds” ballroom dance – to “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” – was a glorious pageant of color and costuming. The King’s Guard, anchored by Chuck Nguyen, somehow flawlessly lofted young Simba (Pierce), standing on their hands as high as Pride Rock. The foul swarming of the hyenas around Scar, the peacocks, cheetahs and zebras (including many children and teens) – all moved across the vast stage of the Strom as if skating on ice. Story, music, expressive movement, filling the theater.
A note about the lead character dancers – Kea Tesseyman, Peter Yanz, Adrian Pierce, Jacob Adams, Carla White, Carrie Hedstrom (who played adult Nala, Simba’s love), Leanna Cotton (teen Nala), Suzanne Dunavent-White (Sarabi), and Isaiah Doble (Zazu). They all showed their training and professionalism. with liberal doses of extra energy and power when needed, and plenty of acting chops to convey their emotions.
The villainous Scar (Kea Tesseyman) preparing for a family battle.
Midcoast Maine is loaded with artistic surprises, and I understand this show to be one of them — a huge leap forward for Kinetic Energy Alive, musical theater adapted to dance, or better, dance interpreting musical theater. It needs to continue. 1600 people standing and cheering can’t be wrong, and we will want more.
All photos courtesy of Marti Stone Photography.
Aside from blogging for this paper, Ned White has written about modern and contemporary dance, in reports and reviews, when working in public television.