It started, Béa Rashid recalls, as “an alternative to The Nutcracker.”
Rashid, the director of Dance Center Evanston, and founder of its resident youth performance company, Evanston Dance Ensemble, worked for years to turn the C.S. Lewis novel, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” into a theatrical dance production.
“I love The Nutcracker, don’t get me wrong,” Rashid laughs.
But Rashid wanted something different, which still could have “snowflakes and flowers and windsprites.”
Hence, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” the story of children on an adventure in a magical land called Narnia.
Turning it into a dance was Béa’s idea. The music was written by her husband Steve Rashid, a Chicago composer and musician. And the dance moves were choreographed by Béa and by Christina Ernst (and several others). Ernst has since become the company’s artistic director.
Steve says composing for a ballet-like production is quite different than writing for his usual genre, jazz.
Dance, he says, needs “functional music,” which helps advance a story, rather than jazz, which is “music for its own sake.”
Plus, he notes, “certain characters have themes that recur as they do,” themes that “originate with Béa and her vision of the show.”
First on stage in 2005, the most recent performance was on March 12, 2020 … the day before almost everything was shut down due to COVID-19.
Almost exactly three years later, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” returns, this time at the Josephine Louis Theater at Northwestern University.
“The story is timeless,” says Ernst.
But the performers, mostly ages 14-18, do age out of the company. Many have gone on to professional dance careers.
Right now, only two of the 22 Ensemble members were also in the March 2020 pre-COVID performance.
Some dancers have main roles, while others appear as multiple different characters, perhaps as an animal, perhaps as a tree.
Ernst says the dance is “all original. We never copy anything. We create something unique,” and try to make it “interesting and unexpected.”
Ernst also explains that this is “dance theater, not ballet.”
There are many similarities, but this performance does not always incorporate classical ballet moves.
The creators behind the show often use the word “collaboration” when describing how the theatrical dance came together.
That’s not surprising, since Béa and Steve met while working on a project in the 1980s, and have been collaborating as a couple ever since.
But Béa also says “truly, our collaborators are the dancers themselves. The show is a little different each time,” because the cast does change over the years.
Each of the performers, she adds, “brings their own essence to the story.”
And besides, it’s always fun to have a classic.
This is “our Nutcracker,” says Béa.
“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” will be performed on March 9-12 at the Josephine Louis Theater on the Northwestern campus.
Ticket information is available online or by calling, call 847-491-7282.
And now, a personal note. I never quite understood the title, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”
I mean, what kind of a wardrobe does a lion wear, anyway?
Well, in this case, the very British author of the book used “wardrobe” to mean a clothes cabinet, and the children go through the wardrobe to enter the magical land of Narnia.
If you want to find out what kind of wearable wardrobe a dancer puts on to become a lion or a witch, you’ll just have to see the show.