The Strand Theatre (viewed via YouTube).
November 3, 2023.
“Books are a uniquely portable magic.” – Stephen King
One could argue that, at its core, dance art is about bringing forward the stories in our very flesh. The Banned Ballet leveraged Abilities Dance Boston’s equity-based mission to shine a light on the national trend of book bans. Especially resonant with me was the idea that the stories in books become part of us: embedded in our body, mind and spirit.
From striking set design to a structure of the main character traveling into a magical land within a book, the program’s themes and extended metaphors seemed key in realizing that message of stories being inherent to identity. As is also typical with this company, the project reached far beyond what transpired onstage. For this one in particular, the company published a book telling the ballet’s story.
As the ballet commenced, the first thing I noticed was a memorable Dali-esque set design (by Janie Howland, installation by Matt Bretton) — with hanging books, and parts of books, altered to hold holes and half-circles within their pages. That’s a powerful image, indeed, when considering the topic at hand.
A solo ballerina (Leslie Taub), “Librarian Leslie” moved slowly and thoughtfully – seemingly under the weight of her current reality. At the same time, she danced with a continuity emblematic of her perseverance. She had grace representative of community leaders like her, who keep at their work no matter the limits and obstacles that they encounter.
Soon, she found a “magic book”, and then moved with a new resonance and texture. She moved with more vertical lift, as well as exploration of the space around her – as if set free. Inside that book was a magical world, full of vibrant colors and individuals standing strong in themselves (animation by Willow Machado).
These “Fab Folks” moved with clear shapes and angles, yet also playful gesture and pathways – those that paired with the solo piano’s accented notes. They danced forward in a line with jazzy flicking steps, savoring that playfulness together. In lovely synchronicity, they made beautiful moving formations across the stage – and found moments of individual exploration and creativity.
Soon, we in the audience met “The Inciters” – here to limit the freedom and generativity that The Fab Folks exuded. The stage darkened (lighting design by Matt Bretton), and the score (from Music Director Andrew Choe) became just ever so slightly chilling. Their shapes were more jerky and angular, with arms curved and held outward at shoulder height – like crows or vultures. They pulled one arm backward in a gesture of ripping pages. That’s all quite foreboding imagery indeed!
Their formations were clear, but without the Fab Folks’ fluid evolutions. This group was full of particularly strong movers, with both technical grounding and satisfying release. The audio description – as an access point for blind audience members, per this company’s norm – described how these characters were “here for uniformity.” Their khakis and polos were right in line with that feeling.
Speaking of audio descriptions (by Abilities Dance Boston Director Ellice Patterson, edited by Amber Pearcy), they offered an opportunity to name each dancer along with description of their movement – recognition that dancers don’t typically receive. They also allowed for clarifying plot, which can be challenging for many audience members to follow from movement alone (when there is narrative and it’s not more abstract – it can run that spectrum in dance art, and this critic thinks that’s a wonderful thing!). The description was even genuinely humorous at times – a reminder to not forget joy as we advocate for, and work toward, what we believe in.
After intermission, solos from both The Inciters and The Fab Folks brought forward their inner monologues. As an intriguing narrative structure, this felt like a time for each of these characters to share their inner states as a snapshot in time. Their facility as movers was as evident here as when they moved in unison, yet arguably even more pleasing – because each dancer could relish in their individual movement qualities.
Audio description poetically described how books can be such deep, treasured parts of who we are. The dancers’ physical and emotional commitment to their performance in this section made that idea viscerally tangible. There was also something cypher (from the hip hop tradition) to how they each came forward from a half circle of fellow movers, to dance their body and soul truth.
Librarian Leslie danced alone again soon, but not for long; the “Fairy Book Mother” (Patterson) shared wisdom with her through her movement, moving with memorable strength and groundedness. Magic seemed to be a clear theme in this ballet – yet, at the same time, the Fairy Book Mother affirmed that intellect and perseverance are their own magic, one that we can always keep close. Patterson moved with a weighted clarity that wonderfully fit this character.
The conflict between the two groups of characters then came to a climax. The Inciters took an approach of intimidation, but – in contrast – the Fab Folks chose to inspire, to “show the Inciters who they can be…showing themes of deep-seated joy.” Librarian Leslie handed one character a book – and, in a circle, they passed it like a baton. That felt like an embodiment of the power within sharing stories.
With all of them moving together, for the first time, the two groups were united in that story-sharing power. For their own part, The Inciters soon revealed sparkly tops underneath their polos – the “fab”, the creativity and ability to truly be themselves. It was in them all along. They all danced together again, facing the audience – as if challenging us to find unity and a focus on moving forwards into a better future.
Librarian Leslie then had to go back to her own world – leaving this magical world found inside of a book (The Neverending Story, anyone?). She had to take what she’d learned there back to her own community. I thought of those instances when insight comes to us like magic, or visions in dreams guide us – and we then go forward to act with what those revelations have shown us.
True to theme, the ballet ended with “The End” in the audio description. Yet, the magic of stories remains in each of us. Abilities Dance Boston’s The Banned Ballet was a keen, imaginative reminder of that truth. The question remains: how will each of us act to keep those stories resonating?
By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.