Gregory Hancock gives fairy tales a fun twist

By John Lyle Belden

An issue I sometimes have with dance is that I find it hard to follow exactly what is going on, what the dancers are trying to portray — there is no such problem with “Once Upon a Time,” by Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre.

The subject matter is as familiar as childhood — popular fairy tales. But Gregory Glade Hancock and his dancers have put their own spin (and leap, and…) on the stories to freshen the narrative. Like in the musical “Into the Woods,” they all seem to occupy the same fanciful space, including an Enchanted Forest, in which the dancers got to work their own choreography.

Red Riding Hood (Hannah Brown) starts the stories by making her delivery. It seems Grandma appreciates the goodies so much, she just wants to dance with Red, though she does look suspiciously furry. As it turns out, the Wolf (Olivia Payton) while big, isn’t so bad — despite harassing pigs — and mostly just wants to get belly-rubs from the Princesses. 

Narcoleptic Beauty (Chloe Holzman) — turns out it wasn’t just a cursed spinning-wheel — turns in the show’s best performance, especially when constantly dancing in and out of consciousness with the Handsome Prince (Thomas Mason). She puts in moments of gracefully collapsing throughout the show, to great comic effect. As for his Highness, being the only man in the company, he has to be everybody’s Prince, which does result in a chase scene or two. But the one he loves is himself, exemplified with his solo number with a hand-mirror — what a “selfie” was 500 years ago.

In other stories coming to life: 

  • Cinderella (Camden Lancaster) sweeps through, dreaming of future happiness, but the glass that is most important to her is in the spectacles on her face, not the shoes on her feet. The Fairy Godmother (Hannah Winkler) gives her frames worthy of Elton John. But Cindy’s desire to look good is greater than her myopia, with appropriately funny results.
  • Little Bo Peep (Josie Moody) has given up on sheep and herds the Three Little Pigs (Payton*, Winkler, and Jillian Hogan). 

(*Not only ironic — playing Pig and Wolf — but I could have sworn all three Pigs were with the Wolf when he huffed and puffed them. Talk about talent.)

  • Rapunzel (Zoe Maish) has the strongest weave in the kingdom, which others can’t resist messing with. 
  • Snow White (Anna Williamson) shakes off the apple’s effect and, with the Prince otherwise occupied, looks for love elsewhere. Seven young students don cap and beard as the Seven Dwarves (Annabelle Breeden, Ashton Curry, Violet Kitchen, Vincent Kitchen, Josephine Meadows, Isabella Webb, and Elli Thacker) — one of which also opens the show by playing the Boy in pajamas with the storybook of these twisted tales.
  • Pinocchio (Morgan Beane) is the Trickster character of the show. Having not learned his lessons yet, he gets his long nose into all manner of mischief throughout the evening.
  • As for the Witch (Abigail Lessaris), the apple isn’t the only curse that’s failing. Her powers have fizzled, and she dances desperately to rekindle them — but be careful what you wish for.

We are also enchanted by some fairies (Zoe Hacker, Alyssa Henderson, Evangeline Meadows, Megan Webb). The supporting cast (who also act as ushers) include Stephanie Blaufuss, Allie Hanning, Audrey Holloway, Molly Kinkade, Stella Kitchen, Sophia Rice, Taylor Smith, Audrey Springer, Ava Thomas, and Rebecca Zigmond. 

This is the Hancock company’s annual cabaret fundraiser, fitting nicely into the big black-box studio of the Academy of GHDT (329 Gradle Drive, Carmel, near the Center for the Performing Arts). The students don’t pressure you too much to give, though there is a clever “grow Rapunzel’s hair” board to track giving. There is also a free treat at every seat.

The talent and athleticism are amazing to watch, with graceful and easy-to-follow storytelling through movement. This show gives a chuckle to all ages, is an easy inspiration to youth — and reminds the casual viewer that there is more to dance than “The Nutcracker.”

It’s also very popular. The final performances Saturday and Sunday are sold out, but Friday, Feb. 21, has been added. Get tickets at ghdtonceuponatime.eventbrite.com. Get company information at www.gregoryhancockdancetheatre.org.

 

Phoenix hosts stunning tribute to artist’s life, GHDT’s ‘La Casa Azul’

By John Lyle Belden

“La Casa Azul” translates to “The Blue House,” the place where Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s life both began and ended, the place she always called home, no matter where her celebrated and tragic life took her.

“La Casa Azul: The Musical” is a newly-revised production by Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre playing at the Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indianapolis. It combines dance and sung-through drama, much like a cross between a ballet and an opera with Latin-flavored music. The actors all embody various individuals and chorus parts, with the exceptions of Valerie Nuccio as Kahlo and JL Rey as her husband, muralist Diego Rivera – who vividly resemble their real-life counterparts – and Abigail Lessaris as La Muerte, the beautiful dancing embodiment of Death.

The whole these parts combine to is an exceptional theatrical experience: stunning, sad, humorous, thought-provoking and inspiring.

Nuccio holds our focus throughout, the hero of the story, winning our hearts despite no effort made to make us love her. Kahlo was brash and outspoken, an unapologetic Communist who hated America and its citizens’ condescending attitudes; still, above all she was a proud woman devoted to her homeland. But the stage also belongs to Lessaris, as Death is ever present. Never speaking a word, her movement and constant attendance speak volumes. At times, Kahlo can even sense her dancing near, occasionally even helping her to her feet to live another day – La Muerte is patient.

The ensemble includes Alyssa Lopez as Kahlo’s sister Christina; Johnathon Contreras as the boyfriend who was with her in a near-fatal accident; Bill Book as her father, who encouraged her to paint during her recovery; Onis Dean as various doctors who rarely give good news; and Dick Davis as Henry Ford (who Kahlo despised) and exiled Leon Trotsky (with whom she had an affair). Jessica Crum Hawkins, who played Kahlo in the 2015 premiere of “La Casa Azul,” portrays Trotsky’s wife.

Gregory Glade Hancock not only provided the choreography, but also the costume design, music and lyrics – with Kate Ayers. The songs flow as easily as the dancing, easing us through the plot. For clarity, a full synopsis is printed in the program. Stage direction is by Mexican artist Georgina Escobar.

The costumes are a vibrant tribute to Mexico and its culture, as well as the dapper decadence of New York in one scene. The set is adorned with a fractured portrait of Kahlo, a reminder of her many facets which only come together when we see her life completed.

For anyone with an interest in Frida Kahlo and her art, seeing this is almost a duty. Performances run through July 28 on the Russell main stage of the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St. See LaCasaAzulTheMusical.com for information and tickets.