WRITTEN BY JULIA LYON
PHOTOS: STUART RUCKMAN

The kids gasped as the first dancer flew and spun on the stage. A man came out, his face illuminated by the light shining out of a book, and asked the audience a question: “If you could tell a story for the entire world, what story would you tell?”

The dancing troop answered, their bodies a kaleidoscope of color as they playfully moved across the stage.

“The Live Creature & Ethereal Things” premiered this winter at The Capitol Theatre in Salt Lake City for an audience of several thousand school children. But it isn’t a show just for the young: it asks all of us to harness our imaginations and memories and tell our own story.

“How do we get wonder back into our vocabulary?” asked Alexandra Harbold, an Assistant Professor in the University of Utah Theatre Department and co-creator of the show.

The product of a unique intersection of the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company and University of Utah theatre professors who are co-founders and co-artistic directors of Flying Bobcat Theatrical Laboratory, the project evolved over more than a year. The group had never worked together before, but were all inspired by the Red Fred Project, created by Dallas Graham.

Graham helps children living in extraordinary circumstances (rare diseases, critical illnesses, life-limiting situations) and helps them develop a book of their own imagination using his bird characters known as the Jolly Troop.

When Daniel Charon, the Artistic Director of Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, learned about Red Fred years ago, he immediately realized that some element — whether the books or the characters — could be the basis for a family dance performance. Graham, who had long respected the dance company’s artistry, connected Charon to Harbold and Robert Scott Smith at the University of Utah.

Harbold and Smith had worked together in 2016 to stage “Climbing with Tigers,” one of Graham’s books, and now both found themselves on theatre faculty at the U.

“I’d seen them work and loved the methodology and loved their drive to find interesting, new and unique — truly unique and surprising — ways to tell a story,” Graham said.

One of the show’s “chapters” was inspired by the Red Fred book, Running on the Wind, about Meghan, now a teenager in Massachusetts. She attended the show’s evening premiere at The Capitol Theatre in February.

“What just really hits me in the heart is so many of the kids I work with — physically — they will never be able to do this stuff. Some are limited to chairs. Some are in treatments forever,” Graham said. “It’s transmitting that human genius in that child that might be limited physically into a physical embodiment that is literally leaping off the page.” 

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But the show was not a dance re-telling of one of the Red Fred books. Instead, the performance was a collection of vignettes about the personalities and adventures of the birds. Thanks to minimal language by the narrator on stage, the viewer could imagine his or her own story as the show progressed.

“It’s been this incredible collaborative process of local artists — the energy behind everyone saying ‘yes,’” Charon said, including the individual dancers. “I’m excited that it’s a really accessible piece of dance that has guts to it.”

This is not your normal stay-quiet-in-your-seat kind of performance.

During one January showing for school children, the dancers occasionally encouraged the audience to get up and move. The slapstick antics of the narrator, played by Smith, made the students in the audience giggle. Then he turned serious, asking a bird named “Stilts”:

“Is it true you can see into the future? So do you know how the story ends?” 

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With cinematic, lush music by Utahn John Paul Hayward, the birds danced through the storyline until one of them, Penny, ran up the aisle and disappeared.

“Penny’s departure into the unknown was something Dallas gave us permission to add to the production. Sometimes the birds unexpectedly leave the Troop, which is a possible reality for these young authors, whose life expectancy is unknown,” said Assistant Professor Smith. “We didn’t want to shy away from it.”

Smith reappeared to ask the audience his storytelling question again. Dozens of scraps of colored paper fluttered down from the top of the stage.

“Whoa!” The kids in the audience cried as the birds raised their arms in their final flight. Parts of the performance are told exclusively in Spanish, which in one case was translated into English and superimposed onto the back of the stage. At times in the show, students responded with their own answers in Spanish.

Bird-inspired costumes by costume designer Jared Gold and song lyrics by Troy Deutsch helped bring “The Live Creature & Ethereal Things” to life. The creators would like to perform the show again at The Capitol next year with Ririe-Woodbury, perhaps in a somewhat revised form.

“Our hope is that ‘The Live Creature & Ethereal Things’ stirs up the recognition that each one of us has a story to tell and that there are stories all around us waiting to be heard — in myriad and diverse languages.” Harbold said. 

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