When a mysterious sickness surfaces and sea horses begin to disappear, a colorful crew of aquatic fauna must band together to identify and tackle the problem. It’s not the newest PBS Kids series; it’s The Mystery of the Seahorse, an archetypal tale of good versus evil set in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. It’s also the latest production from Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre, opening Friday, May 22, at The BeBe Theatre.
The original family-friendly dance production features dancing toxic waste barrels, catfish with purple eyelashes and giant foam puppet heads. ACDT co-directors Susan Collard and Giles Collard were working at Tanglewood Youth Theatre summer camp when the idea for The Mystery of the Seahorse emerged. The story is told through a mix of ballet, tap and modern dance and is set to a soundtrack Giles describes as “extremely varied,” with French music, classical compositions and even some James Brown sprinkled in. Susan choreographed the show.
The cast of sharks, crabs and an array of fish all have distinct and carefully crafted personas. “So we’ve got a bad guy; he’s a grouper,” says Giles, who also designed the costumes. “This grouper is very old and grumpy and a little bit crippled, but he’s extremely greedy. Ursula the shark is a little bit like German cabaret style. The crab is a sort of French aristocratic officer or British officer. … He’s got his little stick; he’s very proper.”
These characters weren’t written into the script with such detail; the student dancers, who range in age from 7-year-olds to teenagers, were given creative license to flesh out their parts. After several classes dedicated solely to character development, roles evolved from, say, a simple barracuda to a big, mean brute named El Chonco. “Then they [had] to change the choreography slightly so that all the moves represent who they are,” says Giles. The performers are “not just dancing dance steps; they’re dancing as their characters.”
The vibrance and individuality of the sea creatures are also displayed through the costume design. Giles cites Chinese folktales as inspiration for his human body/animal head designs. Dancers wear normal clothing but don gigantic foam headpieces. “The great thing about [foam heads] is that they’re not hard, which means when you dance, they move — the jaw will move, the neck will move — and so they look more real,” Giles says. He describes sculpting the foam as a plastic surgeon would, creating wrinkles and folds to add depth and detail.
The production was developed with a sense of playfulness but centered on significant themes: pollution, ecology, community. With such heady topics, how does a youth dance production reach its audience? Giles returns to the show’s archetypal threads: “We understand the values. We understand the characters who are in love; we understand the good guys; we don’t like the bad guys even if they’re ridiculous and funny,” he says. “[Stories are] very good teachers because we’re learning stuff without it being crammed down our throats. We’re learning all this stuff because it’s fun and it’s interesting.”
ACDT staged The Mystery of the Seahorse twice before, but this production has been tweaked and adapted to express the uniqueness of its performers. Not only did the dancers help create the characters they’ll portray, they also came up with an all-new ending to the tale. “Every sea creature has to work together,” says Giles. “The community works together to get it done.”
And, he adds, not only does the story reinforce a sense of community among the students, but they also see that in the production. “They see all the other dancers, they see all the choreography being made, they see the music being put together, they see the sets, and they see all the costumes being made one by one,” says Giles. “And then they see it all coming together at the end.”
WHAT: Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre presents The Mystery of the Seahorse, acdt.org
WHERE: The BeBe Theatre
WHEN: Friday, May 22 and 29, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, May 23 and 30, 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, May 24 and 31, 2 p.m. $15 advance/$17 at the door, students and seniors: $12/$15