Thursday, March 24, 2011

Dance for Little Mischief-Makers



The only way to get my son William (age 5) to eat chicken is to squirt out half a bottle of ketchup onto the plate. I don’t tell him we’re going to the park to get exercise: I kick a soccer ball fifty feet away and race him to it. To quote a more nimble child-rearer, a "spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down." (Though I’ve always been confused at how Mary Poppins tasks Jane and Michael with tidying the nursery. If simply snapping your fingers can unleash incredible telekinetic powers, what exactly is the “work?”). But the motto works for this parent. And it is literally true when it comes to bubble-gum flavored Motrin.

Now I never think of taking William to The New Victory as medicine, because the experience of live theater IS fun, interactive and exciting on its face. Whether it’s music, puppetry, comedy or acrobatics that we’ve come to see, we’ll watch and appreciate it on the level that was intended; we’ll leave remembering a few scenes, gags or stunts to talk about at bedtime and beyond.

Photo: Patrick Baldwin
But the sneaky artists behind the show Mischief have done for dance what I do with that ketchup-filled plate of chicken. The show seems to be aimed at introducing young children (and particularly young boys) to the art of dance with some theatrical sugar. I have to admit that if I asked him as enthusiastically as possible, he still might reject an invitation to see a capital-D Dance show. Calling it Mischief alone is a sly enticement.

The “sugar” of the production is in the candy-like foam noodle props of varying sizes and shapes that seven dancers in primary-color costumes use to connect with the audience and each other during the show. The musical accompaniment is upbeat and hip-hop.

The rules of the show’s reality are established early. The noodles bend, they don’t break. Performers can be at one with them, jumping over and under and through; they can be at odds with them, struggling to control them, ending up in a comedic noodle-tangle around their head. In the more abstract moments, if you could somehow Photoshop the noodles out of the scene you’d have a straight dance piece.

William laughs and smiles, sometimes just stares, trying to understand the rules. I try not to interrupt but can’t resist and chime in with, “What is he trying to do?” “Is she sad?”

Photo: Patrick Baldwin
The final act of the show is a Kung Fu battle between a dancer and a foam stick figure manipulated by the other performers. After the foam man is defeated, William delights in the conclusion, as the performers put together a giant stick figure (“the Daddy”) who avenges his “son.”

It’s difficult to tell what my five-year-old has absorbed and what has sailed over his head. I hope that he got out of it what was intended: that dance can tell a story in a special way that words can’t. I’d love to somehow know what it looked like through his eyes as he watched it (with full attention for its 65-minute run time). Was he watching the dancers, or the noodles? Did he even notice the emotions that performers invested in the foam stick-figure as it mocks his opponent?

After the show, I have to ask my questions carefully and sneakily, knowing that he has little patience for explanations and lessons. The first question is the only one that yields a real answer: “What did you think of the show?” “I liked it.” I’ll settle for that.

In the end, the experience of going to the theater (at any age) is about discovering something new, and I set aside worry and critical analysis, ultimately feeling good that exposure to different art forms is nutrition for his developing mind.

Michael Reisman is the Director of Information Technology at The New 42nd Street / New Victory Theater. He lives in New York City with his wife Abby, his son William (5) and daughter Lila (2). Michael has promised to share his experiences taking his children to The New Victory on this blog. William’s first show was The Green Sheep in 2008. Lila plans to see her first show, Potato Needs A Bath, next month.

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