Evanston Dance Ensemble co-artistic director Bea Rashid was looking for an alternative to "The Nutcracker" for her youth dance company. “There were so many 'Nutcrackers' out there," she said. "I wanted something else.”
That “something else” became “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” a collaborative tour de force for Rashid and her composer husband, Steve Rashid. First produced in 2005, the production is coming back for a sixth run March 12-15 in the Josephine Louis Theatre at Northwestern University.
One of Rashid’s most compelling reasons for choosing to adapt the first of C.S. Lewis’s seven-volume “Tales of Narnia,” published in 1950, is its universal appeal for both children and adults. Like all of the best children’s literature, it speaks to a child’s imagination without talking down or being too sophisticated, and it rekindles the adult reader’s sense of wonder and discovery with metaphors and characters complex enough to sustain interest.
The compelling plot captivates all generations with characters whose fate lies in their ability to overcome their weaknesses and defeat evil. Set in WW II Great Britain, four young siblings are sent to the country house of a family friend to escape the dangers of The Blitz. While exploring the house, Lucy, the youngest, steps inside a wardrobe and is transported to Narnia, a magical land which is "always winter and never Christmas” under the spell of the evil white witch. The spell can be broken only when “two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve sit on the throne of Cair Paravel.” Lucy, her two brothers, and sister re-enter Narnia just as Narnia’s true ruler, the great lion Aslan, returns after a long absence to do battle with the witch.
As a choreographer, Rashid said she has been drawn most to create from “things I either read as a child, or read to my kids.”
She began reading C.S. Lewis’s “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” to her two sons when were little. “This story really spoke to me as I read it to my boys,” she said in a recent interview with See Chicago Dance. “I could totally see this as a dance.”
With every page she turned, she found “interesting parallels” to dance that would serve the artistic needs of her youth company of 30 dancers, who range from age 14-18 years: a large cast of humans, mythological beings, and talking animals; visually contrasting scenes between the worlds of realism and fantasy; children who go on a hero’s journey to overcome evil, the loving lion/surrogate parent, an evil witch, and magic spells.
So many different types of characters suggested using a mix of dance genres to distinguish the different personalities and species. With a diverse company of youth dancers, “some excel at ballet, some at modern, jazz, or tap. The Snow Queen and Robin, for instance, are on pointe, while the Beavers are in tap shoes. This story lends itself to all,” Bea Rashid said.
“The witch tempts (the character of) Edmund with Turkish Delight,” Bea added. “Now that’s a dance!” Like "The Nutcracker," “it even has a built in snow scene” just begging to be choreographed. The one thing “The Nutcracker” had over it was Tchaikovsky’s brilliant music.
Come to the rescue Rashid’s husband, Emmy and Jeff-award winning composer Steve Rashid. “It’s fun to work with Bea,” Steve said as he joined in the conversation, “because we think alike and feel strongly about the importance of narrative line.”
“The amazing thing about Steve,” Bea chimed in, “is that he draws from so many different styles as a composer, so I can say ‘this needs to sound jazzy, or classical…” Having composed extensively for film and theater, “he understands story.”
“I’ve always been a research guy,” Steve added. With “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” there is Narnia, the world of fantasy, and the present day reality of World War II Britain. “It was a fascinating challenge that allowed me to explore almost anything,” he said. This production is “stylistically everywhere!” While admitting that “Jazz music is part of who I am and what I do, it’s always fun to explore other forms.” He uses classical orchestral sounds for the snowflakes and for Aslan, and jazz as signature music for the Beavers.
Steve capitalized on “the magic of computers and synthesizer,” as well as being handy playing five or six instruments himself, to record all the different sounds and styles of his score. “Being able to digitally control with the computer (makes it) very malleable to alter tempos and even individual notes,” he said, which was especially useful during rehearsal.
Bea characterizes herself as a collaborator at heart. “I’ve always had a concept,” she said, “and then reached out to collaborators.”
The Beavers are choreographed by tapper Julie Cartier, who also choreographed “The Haugues,” section for the witch’s henchmen, while co-artistic director Christina Ernst staged the “Old Narnia” scene, depicting Narnia before the reign of the evil witch. Annie Arnoult set movement for the Wolves.
Two other key collaborators are Christopher Ash, who designed projections for the multiple complex scene changes the story requires, and Anna Weber, who created the costumes and built masks for the wolves and for Aslan.
Some of the most important collaborators are the EDE dancers who bring the story to life. Kara Roseborough, an alumna of the company now dancing professionally, returns to this production as the first female dancer to portray Aslan, a being who embodies universal good and love.
When asked what was unique for him about this particular project, Steve Rashid said, “It’s an electrifying experience to see my music physically come to life, especially with young dancers, because they are pouring their hearts into internalizing the music.”
“The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” runs March 12-15 at Northwestern University's Josephine Louis Theatre, 20 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston. Tickets are $16-$24 and can be purchased by clicking the event page below.