Dance Wisconsin and UW music professor Cathy Kautsky serve up La boîte à joujoux, a little toy-box ballet with dolls and a dancing elephant (Saturday, Oct. 28, Mills Hall in the UW Humanities Building, 3 p.m.). Also on the program - one of five "Paris in Performance" events Kautsky's organized this fall - are children's songs for voice and piano by Poulenc, Satie and Debussy.
Don't be fooled - this art-for-kids isn't just fluff. La boîte, originally conceived on the eve of World War I, is a quintessential French response to the times. While Wagner's overbearing nationalist myth operas boomed across Germany, the great French composers were writing about dolls, Kautsky says. Their fascination with children's imaginations was both an escape hatch and a whole artistic movement. La boîte, based on an illustrated children's book by Andre Hellé, has a 1913 Debussy piano score. The war's the subtext beneath the frolic " a delicate girl doll's torn between an evil jester and a wounded soldier toy.
The original choreography, from 1918, is lost " even the choreographer's name is unknown. At Kautsky's request, Dance Wisconsin director Jo Jean Retrum created a new ballet to fit the score and Hellé's book. This work, performed first at Mills Hall last February, is apparently La boîte's American debut.
"To choreograph this lost ballet I just let the story and the score tell me what to do," Retrum says. "The themes in the music clearly represent the lead characters."
It's a shoestring production. The costumes and toy box were borrowed from Nutcracker. The only thing Retrum had to rent was the elephant costume.
She set the 25-minute ballet on her junior students - most were eighth-graders when the piece premiered. In the leads this season are freshmen Michelle Hanson as the doll and Michael Hartung as the jester (Puchinello). Jeremy Sandgren, a junior, is the soldier.
If you don't think high school freshmen can carry off a ballet, you're in for a surprise. I've seen these kids work their toesies off in rehearsals. They're young dancers-in-training, loaded with stage presence. "It's easy to find expressions that fit the trickster," says Hartung, who's a ham and a half.
There's some graceful partnering for Sandgren and Hanson. "We're supposed to act like we're in love with each other," Sandgren says. "We don't know how, but we manage to carry it off."
For Saturday afternoon delight on a chilly fall day, this show's a best bet.