Ballet Theatre SLO tells beloved tale of "The Velveteen Rabbit"

Production is paired with "Degas and Marie (His Little Dancer)," inspired by a famous sculpture

Special to The TribuneDecember 12, 2012 

Storytelling doesn’t always have to involve words, explained Theresa Slobodnik, director of Ballet Theatre San Luis Obispo, as she described the company’s productions of “The Velveteen Rabbit” and “Degas and Marie (His Little Dancer).”

In “The Velveteen Rabbit,” from the classic book by Margery Williams, the story is told theatrically, with dance, dance mime and dance acting, she said, and the colorful, storybook style sets and costumes enhance the unfolding of the tale.

“The sets are visually rich and warm, with lots of texture,” Slobodnik said. “They have theatrical weight, and we are transported to those places.”

The Velveteen Rabbit is a toy that is so beloved by a sick boy that when it is about to be discarded, it becomes a real rabbit. The transformation is apparent in the ballet, Slobodnik explained.

“The rabbit has a solo when she becomes real. Before, her dancing was orchestrated by the boy or the other toys, never initiated on her own. When she becomes real, she does a solo of all the things she and the boy did together. And when the gardener bags up all of the toys to destroy them (because of the germs they may have contracted), she cries real tears.”

Slobodnik chose music for her ballet by Alexandre Luigini, a late 19th-century composer. It is titled “Ballet Egyptian,” but it doesn’t sound very Egyptian to her, she said. It has endearing recurring themes, and it could be edited without permission because of its age, so she could tailor the themes to the dance.

The story is told from two perspectives, from that of the rabbit, and that of the boy. Melissa Rasmussen is the Velveteen Rabbit, and Asael Picasso is the boy, a role he created in 2009. He is in his 20s, but youthful and easily able to play the boy. Raquel Estrella dances the role of the Skin Horse, and Kaila Holford is the Nana and the Nursery Magic Fairy. The casts of both ballets include an ensemble of 40 dancers from ages 5 to 80. The youngest performers play ants, and the oldest, Robert Lee Norton, plays the doctor in “Degas and Marie.”

“He brings history and professionalism to the role,” the director said.

“Degas and Marie,” also by Slobodnik, is a world premiere based on the true story of Edgar Degas, renowned painter of dancers, and Marie Van Goethem, who became the subject of one of his most famous sculptures, “The Little 14-Year-Old Dancer.” Slobodnik said she researched the history and found several versions of the story, but decided to focus on how an underprivileged child, daughter of a widow washerwoman, became the subject of a celebrated art piece.

Today, children tend to expect to get everything they want or they are devastated, Slobodnik noted. Marie had hopes and dreams of being in the Paris Opera Ballet, but when her father died her dreams faded. Yet she persevered, and became an extra in the ballet. Although she never danced in the Paris Opera Ballet, she was immortalized in the Degas statue. She negotiated to model for the artist, Slobodnik said, and he saw something in her — in her body and her mannerisms — that inspired him.

Shae London, who is 14, dances the role of the 14-year-old Marie.

“You can’t replicate that look with an older dancer,” Slobodnik said. “She has the opportunity to create a memorable character in a brand-new ballet.”

Blair London dances the role of Degas, and Nicole Holst plays Marie’s mother.

After searching, Slobodnik selected music for the piece by Riccardo Drigo. She was delighted to find the composition with warm, narrative themes and contrast, she said. “It’s amazing when that happens. If I can’t tell the story with the music, I don’t try to do it.”

The set and costumes for “Degas and Marie” are inspired by the art of Degas. Costumes are designed by Nancy Hopkins and Grant Crowl. Slobodnik’s husband John Slobodnik is set designer and director of the creative team for the program. An architectural designer, he danced at one time and is supportive of his wife’s work, she said. “He understands the vision.”

The show is appropriate for all ages, the director said. “There are themes across the board, and it’s so visually engaging. I want children to experience live theater.” 

IF YOU GO

‘The Velveteen Rabbit’
Plus premiere of “Degas and Marie (His Little Dancer)”
2 and 7 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday
Spanos Theatre, Cal Poly
$15 to $35
756-4849 or pacslo.org

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