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"Beacon Journal": Story’s emotions unfold in ‘Oklahoma!’ Dream Ballet at Weathervane

Sunday, May 31, 2015 5:11:00 PM

In case you missed it, The Akron Beacon Journal previewed Weathervane Playhouse's production of Oklahoma! on Sunday, May 31, 2015.

Here below is the article:

Story’s emotions unfold in ‘Oklahoma!’ Dream Ballet at Weathervane

By Kerry Clawson
Beacon Journal staff writer

In the musical Oklahoma!, the famous Dream Ballet scene is crucial to the story of this 1906 Oklahoma Territory love triangle. It’s such an inextricable part of the musical’s story, without it this tale wouldn’t make sense.

Traditionally, the 15-minute Dream Ballet is performed by a Dream Laurey and Dream Curly, ballet dancers who double for the two lead actors. For Weathervane’s production of the groundbreaking 1943 musical, the romantic leads are also strong dancers, so director Sarah Bailey and choreographer Marissa Montigney-Leenaarts decided to have Abbey Kane and Jonathan Gruich dance their own parts in the ballet, which was originally created by Agnes de Mille.

“She was our strongest dancer that we got,’’ Bailey said of Kane, a Kent State University musical theater major who danced competitively growing up. “It’s rare to find a triple threat like that.”

Oklahoma!, which won the Pulitzer Prize, was the first collaboration between composer Richard Rodgers and librettist and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein. The musical revolutionized the development of the “book musical,’’ with songs and dances that were fully integrated into a well-made story with serious dramatic goals.

Oklahoma! built upon the innovations of the 1927 Show Boat — for which Hammerstein wrote the lyrics — and ushered in the “Golden Age” of American musical theater. In this story, cowboy Curly courts farm girl Laurey but she plays hard to get. She refuses his invitation to the box social dance and instead agrees to go with lonely, disturbed farmhand Jud.

The two men compete for her affections but Laurey is confused by her feelings for Curly and her fear of Jud. Under the influence of a “magic potion” from a peddler, she has a dream that reveals to her that Curly is the right man.

Multiple confrontations occur at the social but Laurey and Curly are eventually married, just before Oklahoma celebrates its new statehood.

Story told through dance

Weathervane’s production, which runs June 4-28, uses much of the original Dream Ballet choreography, which comes with the rights to the show.

In the beginning of the ballet, Laurey is overjoyed to see her beloved cowboy Curly and express her love toward him. As the dance unfolds, Laurey’s dream leads to a wedding but soon turns dark as the threatening Jud enters and a nightmare ensues.

Choreographer Montigney-Leenaarts has re-created portions of de Mille’s dance, including most of the original fight, the beginning of the dance when the characters lift their arms up in joyful praise, and most of the sexy Can-Can segment. She has shortened the ballet to about 10 minutes, trimming some of its repetitive parts.

Nearly the full volunteer cast dances in various segments of the ballet, children (including this reporter’s daughter) through adults college-age and older.

“Marissa does an excellent job of challenging people to the edge of their abilities,’’ Bailey said of the choreographer, who set the ballet in just three days.

Montigney-Leenaarts said her choreographic work is normally influenced by classic music theater in the mode of de Mille because that’s what she grew up with.

“You think about Carousel and you think about Oklahoma!, they have the dream ballet. It’s a certain style. They have the big leaps and the big kicks and the flowing skirts. It is musical theater that’s never going to change,’’ she said of the timeless Rodgers and Hammerstein works.

As the Dream Ballet shifts from soft to dark, the dancers interpret emotional extremes through their bodies. The acting must be in the performers’ body language and faces, Bailey said. Everything must be bigger in this dramatic scene with no words, which closes Act I.

Ballet in its truest form

Kane said this is the first time she has used ballet in its truest form at this high of a technical level in a musical: “I haven’t danced like this in so long, it’s been nice to bring it back to [my] dancing roots.”

Early in the ballet, Laurey runs to Curly with her arms rounded back behind her.

“Lead with the heart first and run toward him,’’ Bailey instructed Kane at a rehearsal May 20.

As they worked through the ballet, Bailey coached leads Kane and Gruich on the noticeably different styles of dance: “All of a sudden you are in a dreamlike state. Everything needs to be about your body is being led by something else.”

As in a dream, Laurey and Curly move through their actions more slowly than usual, and become frozen when the nightmarish segments unfold.

For Gruich, the highly physical Dream Ballet has him leaping over Jud’s head during their big fight. He said he enjoys the character-driven dance, in which Laurey’s ideal version of Curly is very masculine, in charge and protective.

“Every movement was just very strong and very deliberate,’’ Gruich, a KSU music education major, said of Curly’s portrayal in the original ballet.

At rehearsal last month, director Bailey reminded the cast to always maintain a balletic quality to their dance, with their shoulders down and their necks high. Their assignment before the next rehearsal was to watch de Mille’s original choreography on YouTube to study how the ballet dancers portray their emotions.

Twist to the original show

The Weathervane artistic team has put its own stamp on this production: Traditionally, at the end of Act I, Dream Laurey finishes the ultimately devastating ballet and then we see actress Laurey waking up from her dream. At Weathervane, Kane will stay in the same costume as she dances the Dream Ballet and will not wake up as the Act I curtain closes, leading to a more intense effect.

Bailey, who choreographed the rest of the show, said she has worked to remain true to the symbolism in de Mille’s dance. That includes the female performers reaching up to the sky for freedom in their girl-power song Many a New Day, and having the cowboys always move like true cowboys, even when they’re doing their square dance/tap number Kansas City. The musical’s other dances range from softshoe to traditional musical theater style.

The director said the Dream Ballet is about making pictures with the body and allowing audience members’ imaginations to take flight.

“For me, I think it’s a new way of showing character development. This whole dream is helping her [Laurey] make up her mind and she matures,’’ Bailey said.

In the dance, Dream Laurey and Dream Curly’s idealized love is juxtaposed with Jud’s dark, twisted view of women in the Can-Can dance section, leading up to a murder on stage.

“It’s not long and it’s exciting. The dance is really exciting,” Bailey said.

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 orkclawson@thebeaconjournal.com.

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