A tree grows in Eugene

Eugene Ballet showcases a revival of "Alice in Wonderland" and the premiere of "The Large Rock and The Little Yew" at the Hult Center


By GARY FERRINGTON


The Eugene Ballet Company continues its 41st season on February 8 and 9 with a revival of Alice In Wonderland, last performed in 2010, and the introduction of an exciting new work, The Large Rock and The Little Yew

The new ballet “The Large Rock and the Little Yew” tells astory of life’s challenges and perseverance. Photo courtesy of Eugene Ballet Company

World Premiere

The world premiere of The Large Rock and The Little Yew  is based on a children’s book written by Oregon author and  arboriculturist Gregory Ahlijian and choreographed by Eugene Ballet’s resident choreographer Suzanne Haag

Ahlijian’s book tells a heartwarming story of a yew seed that falls into the crevice of a large rock. The rock awakes and, angered at the yew’s presence, tells the young seed that it will never grow into a tree. Though discouraged at first, through courage and perseverance the seed takes root and seemingly, against all the constraints and challenges the rock presents, grows into an amazingly strong yew tree full of hope and self-respect. The message of overcoming hostile environments and obstacles through determination and willpower is one not only for children, but adults as well.

It was while teaching about nature to 8- to 10-year-old students at the Jasper Mountain Center in Springfield, Oregon, an internationally recognized treatment facility serving emotionally challenged children, that Ahlijian was inspired to write The Large Rock and The Little Yew

One day, Ahlijian told ArtsWatch, he thought it would be fun for his students to make up a story about what an ancient tree growing in a particular location might have witnessed throughout its life. ‘Who came by? What was said? What activities might have taken place?’”  Upon hearing his suggestion, an 8-year-old girl’s eyes lit up. “I caught her expression and the inspiration I had given to her bounced right back to me and I said silently to myself, ‘I can write that story!” As Ahlijian explored his story idea he came across a photo of an ancient yew tree growing out of a rock in Wakehurst Place in the United Kingdom. He found in that photo the inspiring struggle the old tree must have made to survive.

Cover of Gregory M. Ahlijian’s children’s book, with illustrations by Janna Roselund.

Bringing the story to stage as a 30-minute ballet would be a challenge, Haag, the choreographer, found. At the heart of the story is a metaphor for overcoming life’s challenges with courage, especially when placed in a difficult situation through no fault of one’s own. ”It was important for me to keep the message of Mr. Ahlijian’s story at the forefront of the ballet, but also, given the nature of a ballet performance, give it a human twist that an audience can see, rather than hear,” she told ArtsWatch. By finding a balance between telling the literal story of a tree growing and the metaphorical story of a girl overcoming being bullied, she found a way to tell the tale through dance. (See Eugene Ballet’s video:  Creating a story of courage and perseverance through dance)

“Obviously trees don’t move very much, and rocks move even less.” Haag observed. Choreographing the emotional content of a story expressed through static characters wouldn’t be easy.

As Little Yew (Sara Stockwell, bottom center) grows, other dancers appear and attach to her, making one large tree. Photo: Antonio Anacan

Ideas began to flow last October, when Haag, with the help of professional dancers from Eugene Ballet and #instaballet, met with Jasper Mountain students, who became collectively engaged in a workshop to explore the creation of dance phrases based on the themes and characters of the book. Later, Haag wove these movements into her choreographic ideas.

Makeup artists test rock-like colors and textures on dancer Sarah Kosterman. Photo: Danielle Tolmie

As this is primarily a ballet with children in mind, Haag wanted both the rock and yew characters to appear as such. The Large rock is played by eight dancers, all costumed by Haag’s design team (Jonna Hayden, Etain Wilday, and Roxy Allen) as kids at play. For example, she notes, one is in a baseball uniform, one is in overalls, one is wearing a tutu, etc. – “think Norman Rockwell type characters.”  Each costume is gray and textured to appear as though the children are made of rock. 

The seedling, Haag decided, would be played by one female dancer, dressed as a child but with color and texture references to a yew tree. She begins by wearing a large oversized sweater to represent her as a seed. As she gains courage over her situation and starts to grow, the rock dancers transform into a tree-like counterpart, making the rock appear smaller as the yew tree grows. “I want the visual to appear simultaneously as a dance between a rock and a growing tree and the interaction of children on a playground,” Haag says. Selective text from the story provides transitions between scenes and reinforces the central message of the book.

The ballet is set to five pieces of music by contemporary Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi, whose music Haag enjoys and believes will help tell the story best. 

Both Haag and Ahlijian hope this new ballet will resonate with children and adults. As Haag notes, life may not hand us the easiest of circumstances, but perhaps we can find a way to grow and discover that what was holding us back may end up inspiring us to move forward.

The Large Rock And The Little Yew is sponsored in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, The Hult Endowment, and The Oregon Cultural Trust. The Bi-Mart Corporation will donate proceeds from the sale of Ahlijian’s book to The Gregory M. Ahlijian Scholarship fund. The fund, established through the Oregon Community Foundation, serves students who have been in residential treatment or foster care in the state, and can be applied toward a four-year university, community college, or accredited trade school.

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Bringing Back a Classic

“Alice in Wonderland,” from left: Koatsu Yashima, Sarah Kosterman, Mark Tucker, Yamil Maldonado. Photo © Ari Denison 2018

Based on the book by Charles Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll), Alice in Wonderland headlines the program, with all the familiar characters onstage including the Mad Hatter, March Hare, Dormouse, King, Queen, and  Knave of Hearts. This updated ballet is fresh with new costuming, vibrant sets, and spirited choreography set to a seamless score that Eugene Ballet Artistic Director Toni Pimble has created from the music of 20th century British composers Benjamin Britten, Malcolm Arnold, and Percy Grainger. In addition, audiences will hear four poems written by Dodgson for the Liddell sisters (Alice, Charlotte, and Edith), to whom he first told an early version of the Alice story in 1862. These are woven into Pimble’s dance sequences and spoken by actor William Hulings

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  • Eugene Ballet’s Alice in Wonderland and The Large Rock and The Little Yew  will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 9, 2020. Tickets online at  Hult Center for the Performing Arts

Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch.

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