Two Denton arts groups pair up children’s classics in music and dance
Lisa Racina and Jason Lim say they get the feeling they might have been destined to work together.
The two artists are the creative force behind the local staging of two short ballets, The Carnival of the Animals and Peter and the Wolf.
Both famous pieces of music have long been companion pieces, performed back-to-back for eager children who enjoy both the clever music and the bright, colorful characters. Prokofiev’s Peter went down in modern history thanks to Walt Disney’s animated treatment. And Saint-Saens’ Carnival has entertained audiences for ages as a ballet or symphonic concert.
But if the pieces have ever been done in Denton, it’s been a long, long time. And it took Jason Lim’s risk in forming a professional chamber orchestra in Denton — Odysseus Chamber Orchestra — to get the proverbial ball rolling.
“Jason formed the orchestra in 2011, and it was in the paper,” said Racina, the artistic director of Denton City Contemporary Ballet and the founder and chief faculty member of Denton Dance Conservatory. “My mom brought the paper in and showed it to me. She was like, ‘There’s an orchestra in town! You need to perform with this group!’”
Racina said she agreed with her mother, and then went on about running a busy dance studio and developing A Gift for Emma, which went on hiatus that same year to give her resident dance company time to prepare for its trip to Europe — a sign that Racina’s young dancers were maturing artistically.
“I didn’t really think too much about it,” Racina said. “And then one day I was walking around the studio humming. I kept humming this music and it was bugging me. I couldn’t stop humming it, and I finally asked Mom, ‘What is this music?’ She answered right off the bat: ‘That’s Peter and the Wolf.’”
The music, Lim confirmed, was the musical motif for Peter, a young hero of the classic narrated piece of music. The story finds Peter growing up at his grandfather’s house in the clearing of a forest. Peter ventures out of the house one day, forgetting to close the gate behind him. That one omission leads to Peter’s escapade with a duck, a bird, a cat and, eventually, a wolf.
About the time Racina was humming Prokofiev to distraction, Lim was attending a Denton Chamber of Commerce meeting.
“I happened to be sitting next to Janet Latham,” said Lim. “She asked me what I was working on, and I told her I was interested in doing Peter and the Wolf. She hooked me up with Dalton Gregory.”
Latham worked as a librarian in the Denton school system before turning her focus to storytelling. Lim recruited Latham to narrate The Carnival of the Animals. Gregory, an accomplished storyteller, City Council member and former school principal, agreed to narrate Peter and the Wolf.
And Lim met Racina, who said she was shocked when he asked if her dance company would join the chamber orchestra in bringing the two popular children’s stories to the stage. She didn’t hesitate, she said.
“Of course, it’s not easy to fit this into the studio schedule or the dancers’ schedules, but how could we say no?” Racina said. “It’s just a good opportunity to see how another organization works, and to meet someone of Jason’s caliber.”
Racina is the daughter of a professional musician: jazz musician John Racina. But as Denton’s community-based orchestras came and went, the dance teacher and choreographer hadn’t been able to bring live music and her company together.
Lim said the project has challenged his usual approach to conducting.
“I’ve been attending their rehearsals,” he said. “I take my metronome, and I listen really carefully to the recording they’re rehearsing with.
“That’s not my approach. I have a habit of not listening to recordings. When I conduct, I want to give the audience my interpretation of the music. But for this project, it’s important for me to really know the music the dancers are using.”
Educators lean on both Peter and Carnival because it introduces musical instruments to children through a story.
Peter is accompanied by fresh, mezzo strings, while the bird flits along to the flute. The duck paddles and preens to the reedy sound of the oboe. The cat is accompanied by the smooth, sneaky lightness of clarinets.
Grandfather’s character is explained through the sage sound of the bassoon. And the wolf leaps and creeps with the brash flash of French horns, trumpet and trombone.
Racina flexed her creative muscle and fleshed out Peter by bringing in dancers to dance the parts of long meadow grasses and the trees. Younger dancers also play the roles of dew drops.
“I took a hint from the Royal Ballet,” she said. “The water droplets dance with the duck, and it’s all based on the Esther Williams choreography from the old movies.”
In other words, there will be lots of color and movement for young eyes.
Lim said Racina’s dancers have entertained him.
“The dancer who plays the grandfather is perfect for the role,” he said. “So funny, and such perfect facial expressions.”
Racina staged Carnival in compact scenes set to Saint-Saens’ music. The old fable, “The Tortoise and the Hare,” gets a funny ballet makeover.
“The hare is dressed up like a 1970s jogger, doing a lot of stretching,” she said.
Lim said the music for the tortoise should tickle some funny bones, too.
“The tortoise song is the can-can, just slowed way down,” he said.
Racina said she included some gags for the adults, too.
“We’ve got dancers playing the crowd at the race, cheering in slow motion,” she said. “And after the hare comes around for the second lap, there’s a bunny following. And then the hare comes back around again, this time with more bunnies.
“You gotta do something for the grown-ups, too, right? You have to give them something to laugh about.”
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877.
‘PETER AND THE WOLF’ &
‘THE CARNIVAL OF THE ANIMALS’
What: Odysseus Chamber Orchestra with Denton City Contemporary Ballet present Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” and Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals,” with narrators Janet Latham and Dalton Gregory
When: 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Krum High School Performing Arts Center, 811 E. McCart St.
Details: Tickets cost $15 at http://peterandthewolfdenton.brownpapertickets.com , or $18 at the door. The two short ballets are presented in two acts. Suitable for all ages.