Avatar Movement may not be as big of a name as Colorado Ballet, but it's just as vital a force in the Denver arts community, commanding a presence through a DIY philosophy. For the company's upcoming production of Fern Gully, artistic directors Maggie Chapman and Angela Marquez designed the entire performance themselves — creating the sets, costumes and music in-house.
The show has been five months in the making. Avatar Movement showcases both professional dancers and Aurora Dance Arts dancers, age six to eighteen, creating a unique synergy and an opportunity for budding dancers to take the stage. The company performs bi-annually; the last production Avatar Movement showcased was a funky take on The Wizard of Oz, set to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon album, in 2015.
Westword: Why did you choose to turn Fern Gully into a ballet?
Maggie Chapman and Angela Marquez: Fern Gully has all of the unique qualities that we look for when building an Avatar show. We typically want to find something that is nostalgic for audiences and has a storyline that people are familiar with. Doing so allows us to create a production that is audience-friendly, but also poignant. This weekend’s production is our tenth-year anniversary, and so we put our heads together early on and decided to go bigger in celebration of this achievement and create something larger than life.
The storyline of Fern Gully really spoke to us and provided exactly what we needed in order to build a production. The characters are dynamic and interesting, and leave a lot for our dancers to get into. The opportunity to create a super-interactive experience was also present, which we’re proud to have achieved with the help of our guest performers from Aurora Dance Arts.
Lastly, the storyline of Fern Gully is really relevant for our time. Environmental concerns are relevant as we use up our resources, and climate change is a very real thing that we’re all beginning to see the effects of. This is our creative way of looking at those issues, and taking on the perspective of the forest itself, the animals within it and, in this case, fairies who are affected by human destruction.
Everything about this performance is handmade, which is super-impressive. Discuss some of the challenges to that level of commitment.
The biggest challenge with a project this large is our bandwidth. As with many small dance companies, we’re our own directors, producers, costume designers, choreographers, set designers and performers. We pull knowledge and resources from every available direction in order to bring a show like this to life.
A big challenge for this show was creating the sets and the costumes. In order to achieve the theatrical level we strive for, we also need to make sure that our costumes and sets are conducive to dancing. Another challenge we faced was determining how to take this idea of a rainforest fairyland and bring it to life. We experimented with a plethora of lighting techniques and projections to create an ethereal experience, and we’re really excited with the result. This is the furthest we’ve pushed ourselves when it comes to special effects. It is the most interactive show we’ve ever created, and our audience members can expect to feel immersed within this fabricated fairy world.
There are seven adult company members. Expand on their collective background and why they dance with this particular company.
Each member of Avatar Movement came to the company with a different dance background. For the most part, everyone grew up dancing their entire lives. The beauty of Avatar is that it truly became home for so many Denver dancers looking to continue dancing and performing into their adult years. Avatar’s Founder, Whitney Cavanah, created this feeling ten years ago when she started the company. We (Maggie Chapman and Angela Marquez) have been running the company in Denver for a little over four years now. The best part about Avatar is that everyone leaves class or rehearsal with a happy heart. No one leaves because they’re angry.
The unifying force for every Avatar member is a shared love of dance. Each member plays an integral role in the company, and everyone is connected to the heart of Avatar, which is the dedication we share in living our dreams and creating beauty in the world.
The seven company members of Fern Gully have performed together for a number of productions and local event appearances. Together they make a great [team], embodying a variety of skills, backgrounds, styles, techniques and endearing personalities.
Tell me about the dancers from Aurora Dance Arts.
The partnership with Aurora Dance Arts formed as a result of Maggie Chapman’s directorship at the organization. She works closely with the junior and senior performing groups, and wanted to give the dancers an experience beyond the classroom.
The premise of Aurora Dance Arts is to provide community performances and participate in cultural outreach at the local level. For many of these students, they are exploring dance and performance as a possible college or career path. This partnership with Avatar provided them the opportunity to obtain hands-on, real-world dancing experience in a professional company.
Students were expected to work hard, retain choreography quickly, participate in formal rehearsals, and work within a more fast-paced environment than what they’re used to in the classroom. The beautiful thing about this experience is how they showed up and really worked like professionals. There simply wasn’t any room for silliness or goofing off. As we enter the final days of this production, it’s obvious to us that they feel so special to be a part of the production. We look forward to them seeing the results of their hard work this weekend.
What challenges were there in taking a story that is so narrative-based and turning it into a silent production?
Avatar Movement’s performances have a long history of taking a narrative storyline and translating it into a theatrical dance experience. Each story is told through the combination of movement, music and visual arts (costumes, set design and props). That being said, the actual translation of the storyline into a silent production is not our biggest challenge; it’s determining each element and creating it from scratch that poses the real challenge.
One of the elements we consider first is the music for the show. Each song has been handpicked to tell a portion of the story, and then we find a way to make it all fit together. We want the music to reflect the story we’re trying to tell, and the choreography comes organically once we get those details in place.
Another challenge we faced was avoiding being too literal with everything. The costumes, in particular, portray the characters creatively and reflect our personal visions for them, rather than re-creating copies of each character from the book or movie. It’s important to us to accurately retell the story using important details without getting too bogged down in having every single moment of the story retold. It’s really just a process of letting go from being tethered to the story, and allowing creativity to take its course.
Using lighting, sound, costuming and movement, we were able to create feelings for every moment of the show. There is some pretty heavy contrast between the ethereal fairyland and the ominous machines and our portrayal of Hexxus [the villain].
The other thing that’s important throughout is giving our dancers the freedom to explore who their character is within the storyline. We set the choreography on them and then allow the dancers to explore their range within the choreography and what that might look like. In the end, the same dance performed by four dancers may not be the same dance at all. It’s not just about doing steps on a stage; it’s about the creative experience as a whole.
Showtimes are Saturday, April 1 at 7:30 pm, Sunday April 2 at 2:00 pm and 6:00 pm. at Cleo Parker Robinson Dance at 119 Park Avenue West. Tickets cost $20 for adults and $15 for children 12. For more information, go to Avatar Movement's website.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.