When it comes to fairytales, Gabriel Chajnik believes it’s the journey that counts, not the happily-ever-after ending. “Have you ever travelled somewhere to see or meet somebody, or something that’s really important to you, and you don’t really care what kind of obstacles you’re going to meet along the way?” he asks. That, he says, is the core message behind his latest production, “The Lost Princess of Oz.”
The world premiere of the multimedia dance musical choreographed by Chajnik, the founder and director of the Axelrod Contemporary Ballet Theater, runs Aug. 19-21 and 26-28 at the Pollak Theatre at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, in a co-production with the Axelrod Performing Arts Center.
The story, told through Shannon Hill’s libretto, is based on the 11th book from L. Frank Baum’s “Oz” series. It follows the mysterious disappearance of Princess Ozma and the adventures of her closest friends — including Glinda the Good Witch, the Wizard of Oz and Dorothy — on their journey to find the fairy princess and restore the missing magic to Emerald City.
Chajnik’s AXCBT is Monmouth County’s first professional ballet company. It was founded in 2018 as a program of the Axelrod Performing Arts Center in Deal Park. The alliance gives the ballet theater access to the Axelrod PAC’s support staff and resources, from grant writers to set builders, prop makers and lighting designers. “I’m in the middle of a running, well-oiled machine,” he says, “and as a dance company, we’re very lucky to be in that relationship. I have so many people holding my back!”
Over the phone, Chajnik speaks in a lowkey, cultured Argentine accent. Like Baum, he’s a gifted storyteller. It comes to him naturally. He says growing up in Argentina fostered an early appreciation of children’s fantasy and literature. His sixth-grade reading curriculum included Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince.”
The idea for the dance musical originated in 2019 while he was programming the 2020 season with Axelrod PAC artistic director Andrew DePrisco. “Andrew just always sparks ideas,” Chajnik says. “But then, of course, the pandemic happened,” and the programming was shelved.
The new production marks the company’s official return to the 95-minute full-length ballet musical. Chajnik takes the postponement in stride. He’s emerged from the pandemic with optimism and he’s ready to welcome back audiences. “It’s a very good moment to bring it to life now, to bring some light to our audiences. Expect a lot of comedy and fun.”
Chajnik’s choreographic currents are genre-blending. He does this by utilizing the classical vocabulary of classical dance and mixing in modern and contemporary techniques such as tap and hip-hop. His company acts as a laboratory to fine-tune his voice and experiment with new movement.
“Iconography is very important to the creative process of dance,” he says of the rich, lyrical and complex dance movement at the heart of his choreography. “For this piece, which is a narrative piece, I created the movement language from the music. For me, the music is the queen.”
Composer Chris Becker’s original score of Appalachian-inspired music created an imaginative, dynamic baseline. “The music is phenomenal,” Chajnik says. “It’s bluegrass, mixing all these rhythms.”
The orchestration includes banjo, fiddles, strings, keyboards, xylophone and vibraphone, among other instruments. Chajnik communicated to Becker his choreographic ideas for each magical character of Oz: narratives, descriptions, colors of the music, tempo and dynamics.
Another key point of orientation was the vivid pen-and-ink drawings of Baum’s longtime book illustrator, John R. Neill. Chajnik distilled Neill’s illustrations into dance movements to capture each character’s DNA, no matter how insignificant the role. For example, Chajnik chose the Patchwork Girl, a magical ragdoll, as the “dancer and mover” of the story. “I said to Chris, ‘The Patchwork Girl has a lot of dynamic and a lot of rhythm, so her phrasing is not a square phrasing. It has phrases of five, or phrases in which it goes into a 3/4 or into a 6/7. It’s very complicated music.’ ”
Chajnik invited local artists for the singing-speaking cameo roles of Billina the Yellow Hen and Baum; they will be played, respectively, by Reagan Richards and Gordon Brown of the Shore-based country-rock group, Williams Honor. The dance movement for Billina was inspired by Neill’s illustration of her adrift at sea in a floating chicken coop after a storm. “That one image for me was super important for the fact that all these characters have a narrative and have a way of moving. So imagine a talking hen and you can imagine how that dancer is going to move. I’m not making an abstraction of it. I’m being very literal.”
In addition to collaborating with local talent, Chajnik frequently taps seasoned artis to develop his dancers’ choreographic styles and expose his company to a wider range of experience. For this production, he called on his close friend, Andrew Black, a prominent tap choreographer and teacher at Steps on Broadway in Manhattan. “I called Andrew and said, ‘Would you come? I really want Ojo the Unlucky (a Munchkin) and Jellia Jamb (Ozma’s maid) to be a tapper.’ So Andrew came and he started choreographing the tap dance for them, and it’s so lovely!”
Another character — Tik-Tok, a magical copper man with clock parts — is a hip-hop dancer.
Chajnik’s voice as a choreographer and director was shaped through his experience as a professional dancer. Fundamentals were learned early. His mother enrolled him in the ballet academy of the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires at a young age where he trained and studied as a classical dancer.
He calls it “a stroke of good fortune” that he met Héctor Zaraspe, a Juilliard faculty dance teacher who was also a private coach of Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn. Zaraspe became his mentor and he was accepted into Juilliard’s dance department on a full scholarship.
“That’s where I was introduced to the pillars of modern dance: Martha Graham, Paul Taylor and José Limón,” he says of his Juilliard years. “I was introduced to those three wonderful incredible techniques, the foundation of all modern dance here in America and the world.”
He was particularly drawn to Taylor, whose diverse and experimental style created iconic roles for Merce Cunningham, George Balanchine and Martha Graham. He cites one of Taylor’s masterworks, “Cloven Kingdom,” as a highlight of his career, because it represented an opportunity “to be able to really learn his technique and just to be able to dance with those dynamics of such a powerful work.”
The modern masters of dance taught him the vocabulary needed to shift the landscape of dance. It’s become a trademark of his style. “I keep changing my point of orientation,” he says, comparing it to studying a work of art from different angles and perspectives in order to unlock new meanings. “I keep shifting and pivoting, and that way I can really create a new language.”
His ultimate goal is to create movement that challenges his dancers while inspiring his audiences. “What it is,” he says, “is basically observing the dancer and allowing the dancer to be able to open up to the music.”
Chajnik continued his studies in Colorado at the David Taylor Dance Theatre, dancing classical and modern works. His New Jersey chapter began at American Repertory Ballet, where he worked and danced with trailblazers such as Septime Webre and Graham Lustig.
New Jersey likes Chajnik and Chajnik likes New Jersey, because it’s the place where he shares deep respect for dance with colleagues such as Jess Levy, the founding CEO of the Axelrod PAC, and Elise Feldman, board president of the ballet theater. “Elise and I think alike,” Chajnik says. “She’s a person who understands the power of dance.”
Chajnik’s future goals for the AXCBT are closely aligned with the Axelrod PAC board’s core values of promoting education, community and inclusion.
“They understand what dance can do to a child’s mind, what the language of dance can say and how it can say so much without even speaking.”
For more information, visit axelrodartscenter.com/the-lost-princess-of-oz.
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