"I wish you could see this," said Christopher Moses, associate artistic director of Alliance Theatre, in a recent phone interview with ArtsATL. He looked out his office window to the square below, where the dancers of the Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre were rehearsing their new children's ballet production of Peter and the wolf. "I love any opportunity to pull back the curtain and demystify the process," he said. "The campus looks alive with these artists there." Children who attend the High Museum of Art's Toddler Thursdays are also drawn to the view as they walk through the outdoor space, he said.
By this measure, even before the first execution of Peter and the wolf on April 30, this collaboration between Terminus and the Alliance, orchestrated by musicians from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, is already a success.
The new contemporary ballet is part of the Alliance's Toddler Takeover Festival, which returns to the Woodruff Arts Center after a two-year hiatus from Covid. Moses described the event as a "comprehensive arts festival, with visual and performing arts and creative arts opportunities, designed for younger audience members."
Not to be dismissed as having been created specifically for children 5 and under, Moses said, Toddler Takeover includes "unequivocally some of the most experimental and daring programming the Alliance offers in any given season."
Toddler Takeover will be held Saturday and Sunday, April 30 and May 1, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Peter and the wolf will run several times a day.
The Terminus-Alliance collaboration has been in the works since 2019. Terminus Artistic Director John Welker approached Moses with the idea of creating a dance work for an outdoor performance for Toddler Takeover 2020, but that was cancelled due to the pandemic.
When live performances began to resume last year and Terminus co-founder Rachel Van Buskirk presented her idea for a new production of Prokofiev's timeless orchestral fairy tale, Welker recognized it as the perfect fit to launch Terminus' Family Series initiative and revive the Alliance Partnership.
Peter and the wolf and Family Series, Van Buskirk says, are designed to reach new audiences, especially children, by going into schools and other non-traditional, outdoor performance spaces like the Woodruff Arts Center. "My biggest goal was to make Peter and the wolf mobile," she said.
Van Buskirk was drawn to Prokofiev's score because of its canonical status as an introduction to classical music and theater arts: "I've wanted to do this for a while. I want to get the students to think about what listening to this music evokes in them, what movement it inspires. Throughout the process, she explored "how to make ballet appealing to young people, not just the form, but the emotion, how it can bring joy and laughter."
For Van Buskirk, choreographing with her target audience in mind meant getting up close and personal with the dancers and looking at movement from a child's eye level. She developed a contemporary vocabulary that connects dance to everyday movement, where strictly classical ballet sometimes makes an appearance as a visual joke, which could register with the baby ballerinas or adults in the audience.
Using the smugness of a troop leader taking a group of young scouts on an adventure, this Peter and the wolf attempts to break the fourth wall of the theater, immersing and engaging the audience in the story.
Van Buskirk said the work also gives Terminus dancers the opportunity to showcase the full range of their artistic talents. "They are great dancers technically, of course, but seeing their ability to express a wide range of emotions and their comedic timing has been really fun and wonderful."
Van Buskirk is grateful for the opportunity to collaborate "with industry titans like Alliance and ASO" in her first solo choreographic foray. "I get a glimpse of how they invent and process, which is enlightening. Every day I learn something new that helps guide how I approach a co-presentation and work collaboratively in multiple mediums."
Alliance actress Jasmine Thomas will play the narrator/scoutmaster. The Alliance also provided the script, costumes and set design. Terminus veteran and co-founder Heath Gill is Peter, with company members Laura La Russa (formerly Laura Morton) and Jackie Nash Gill as Bird and Duck, respectively.
Terminus protégés Anna Owen, Summer McNeill and Claire Lee will join the cast as Park Rangers, with Katelyn Sager as Cat. Van Buskirk will make an appearance as Grandma and guest artist Bret Coppa (formerly of Atlanta Ballet) will lend his talents as Wolf.
As Moses noted, creating work for a very young audience is challenging, requiring artists to "get the little ones to be almost co-creators and part of the process from the beginning, working with them as well as for them."
The goal is a production where children experience all that live theater has to offer, Moses said, while being open to spontaneity. "If a 2-year-old gets on stage during the show, it's absolutely no big deal."
Robin Wharton studied dance at the School of American Ballet and the Pacific Northwest Ballet School. As an undergraduate at Tulane University in New Orleans, she was a member of the Newcomb Dance Company. In addition to a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Tulane, Robin holds a law degree and a Ph. D. in English, both from the University of Georgia.