Retold through the medium of contemporary dance, C.S. Lewis’ classic children’s story “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” has moments of affecting tenderness and comes packed with muscular action. Plunging viewers into a fairy-tale adventure, this revamped production, which choreographer Randy James originally tackled in 1999, received its born-again premiere at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s Victoria Theater on Saturday.
Here two of the protagonists in Lewis’ tale — a little girl named Lucy and her brother, Edmund — stumble once again into the magic kingdom of Narnia, where they become key players in an epic battle between good and evil. James’ adaptation is light on scenery and narrative details, however, and without program notes for guidance, parents will have some explaining to do.
That’s okay, because while Mom and Dad are filling in the plot, kids also get a lesson in how to watch a modern dance performance. Instead of clobbering the audience with a dictionary (not that there’s anything wrong with that), dance extracts the kernel from the stories it tells. It conveys emotional truths directly via shape and posture, movement shading and facial expressions; the performers communicate human sentiments and the nature of relationships with exceptional subtlety. Pantomime adds another layer. Actors may digress in words, but dancers are usually thrifty, getting straight to the point. Moreover, while the narrative of a dance may be sketchy, this lack of specificity gives viewers the chance to embroider the script on their own, making the experience of watching dance both personal and profound.
Consequently, there is no hulking armoire or any other period furniture in this production of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” Scene designer John Lasiter supplies a simple backdrop made of delicate whorls of thread, suggesting the perpetual winter that blankets Narnia. Under the spell of the evil White Witch, the land is desolate.
A curious child exploring this terrain can still make friends, however; Lucy soon strikes up a “conversation” with the playful faun called Mr. Tumnus. The choreographer’s style here is sinuous and fluid. As Lucy, dancer Monica Gonzalez sweeps in circles and darts, evincing curiosity and taking possession of the space. Robert Mark Burke, as Mr. Tumnus, observes her with a sparkle in his eyes, and they begin a teasing game in which she rolls off his back and flips over his arm. Mr. Tumnus gives Lucy a blindfold that enables her to see a trio of dancing Nymphs, who conjure over the girl when she falls unconscious. Mr. Tumnus, it seems, is not entirely to be trusted. But he repents, and sends the Nymphs away.
Meanwhile, where is Edmund? Wandering off on his own, Lucy’s unlucky brother, danced by Derek Crescenti, is intercepted by the wolf, Maugrim, who leads him to the White Witch herself. Spitefully portrayed by Sarah Housepian, the White Witch leaps at Edmund with purple claws and makes him a shady offer, extending a hand by sliding her arm through her other hand. She mimes eating and swallowing what readers of the story may remember is poisoned Turkish Delight. When Edmund tries to flee he is captured —and sent on a traitorous mission.
At the center of the piece, James has choreographed a divertissement for a family of Beavers, wittily interspersing ballet steps and soigné gestures. This “Beaver Ballet” is a good-natured romp, lightening the tone before the White Witch returns and continues to harangue and dominate Edmund. Their exchange becomes increasingly dramatic as she mounts Edmund’s shoulder and forces him to the ground.
At last we meet the hero of this story, the Lion, whose courageous act of sacrifice will set Narnia free. The role suits dancer Alex Biegelson, who wears his mane proudly and whose manner suggests the confidence that comes with strength. James has him vaulting and pirouetting, demonstrating his technical chops as he devours space. When the Lion surrenders to the White Witch — trading his life for Edmund’s — it’s clear he doesn’t have to. And when he returns to life, oh boy. The resuscitated Lion and his pals mix it up with the White Witch and her cohort of baddies, punching, kicking and slashing in a fairy-tale smack-down that ends with the White Witch turned into a projectile. Clearly this isn’t “The Wind in the Willows.”
Contributing to the production’s success are ingenious costumes by Abraham Cruz, whose use of masks and shiny or transparent materials adds to the atmosphere of mystery. The composite score unites several compositions by Mozart — elegant music whose reassuring sense of order practically guarantees a happy ending.
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