Northern Michigan University's CO/LAB Dance Company will present “Carnival of the Animals: A Short Ballet” for the young and young at heart, set to the renowned musical score by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns. The ballet will be followed by a choreographic showcase by NMU students and faculty. The production begins at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 1 through Saturday, Feb. 3, in Forest Roberts Theatre. A sensory-friendly Theatre for All matinee will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday.
“I've always been inspired by the musical score, and the idea of creating something that's accessible, relatable and fun for kids stemmed from recent conversations within our department about doing more outreach in the public schools,” said CO/LAB Artistic Director Karina Johnson. “It's a 20-minute contemporary ballet with small vignettes that represent each animal in the carnival through unique dances.”
As another form of outreach, the dance program will offer a workshop where children and their parents can interact with NMU dancers from 10-11:15 a.m. Saturday, before the matinee. Different stations will be set up for games and mask-making. Children will also be able to learn steps from a dance.
“Carnival of the Animals” will mark the dance company's first opportunity to create its own costumes for a production. Johnson's colleague Em Rossi, an NMU alumna who serves as head of the tech and design bachelor's program and costume shop manager, was very receptive to the idea and is working on that task with a team of student designers. They are using materials that are either recyclable—mainly cardboard—or repurposed. This aligns with NMU's core value of sustainability.
Johnson reports that, last year, there were 13 students in CO/LAB. This year, the cast has swelled to 36.
“There are challenges in controlling a room with that many people, but it's also exciting because they aren't only dance majors and minors, but students from all over campus and different academic majors,” Johnson said. “We had more than 50 people audition for the company. It's super fun and a nice conglomeration of people collaborating on this performance. That's part of my vision for CO/LAB; everybody has a part to play.”
Mya McPherson, a freshman from Otswego, Mich., is one of six students choreographing dances for the second act. She began taking lessons at 8, participated on a competitive dance team in high school and would like to teach dance in the future. McPherson enrolled at NMU for the opportunity to fully immerse herself in the program on and off stage from her first year, rather than having to wait for a future chance to shine. Johnson agreed that this early and active level of involvement is not typical of most dance programs.
“For this show, I choreographed an upbeat piece that has some jazz, but is also contemporary because of the storytelling aspect,” McPherson said. “There are nine dancers, and it basically explores the idea presented in a [Charles Bukowski] quote: ‘Can you remember who you were, before the world told you who you should be?' It's kind of an explorative dance for those performing. That's been fun for me, as a growing choreographer and aspiring teacher, to try to relate to the dancers and to get them to understand where I'm coming from as I try to explain the piece. I'm also choreographing my own solo.
“Working with the dancers has been my favorite part. I start with my idea of what it looks like, but then they might give it something different that changes my perspective a little bit—mostly in a good way. And it's cool, because I feel like I'm growing a lot in that experience. When I used to choreograph dances, it was for people I knew well and I knew what they could do. I didn't know anyone coming in as a freshman at NMU, so it's been more of a challenge. But it's also very rewarding.”
Tickets for the CO/LAB production are $20 for the general public, $15 for NMU faculty/staff, seniors and military; $13 for students 18 and under; and $5 for NMU students. They can be purchased at nmu.universitytickets.com