Ballet Ariel Stages The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in Denver | Westword
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Ballet Ariel's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Redefines Holiday Ballet

The ballet company decided to offer something other than The Nutcracker this holiday season.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe takes places in the 1940s.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe takes places in the 1940s. Courtesy of David Andrews
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Every year, ballet companies around the world dust off their tutus, tighten their point shoes and stage their beloved Nutcracker productions. It's become as predictable as fruitcake during the holiday season: You've seen it a million times, and it's about as exciting as the socks you'll inevitably find under the tree.

Ballet Ariel heard our yawns and will deliver a breath of fresh air to the holiday ballet scene with the world premiere of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, based on C.S. Lewis's classic tale. Artistic and executive director Ilena Norton, the visionary behind this bold move, has long revered the story.

"I was first exposed to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in middle school and just fell in love with the book," Norton says. "I read it over and over; it was definitely one of my favorite books during my childhood. This year, when I decided that I wanted to do something other than The Nutcracker for our 25th-anniversary season, I was sort of racking my brain about what would work for holiday ballet. All of a sudden, it just popped into my head that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe would make a great holiday ballet, and I became really excited to develop that."
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"The entire story is there," says Ballet Ariel artistic and executive director Ilena Norton. "For people who love the original, they will see the whole story play out on the stage in our ballet."
Courtesy of David Andrews
Norton's adaptation of the beloved tale is nothing short of magical. The story takes us to the 1940s, where four siblings — Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter — stumble upon a mysterious wardrobe in the Old Professor's home. When Lucy bravely steps inside, the adventure begins. Her brother, Edmund, follows suit, and they find themselves in the wintry wonderland of Narnia.

What follows is a series of adventures featuring memorable characters such as an umbrella-toting faun, an evil White Witch, a beaver couple, a kind-hearted lion named Aslan and a host of others. Together with the siblings, they engage in a mystical battle of good versus evil. Though the White Witch's icy grip seems unyielding, the arrival of Aslan brings hope and beauty to the holiday season.

"The entire story is there," Norton says. "For people who love the original, they will see the whole story play out on the stage in our ballet. One of the things that we captured in the ballet that I loved about the book is how beautiful this world is that C.S. Lewis created. I think because ballet is such a beautiful art form, it lends itself very well to creating the beauty of Narnia that I feel is sometimes missing from some of the other depictions of the story."
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Though the White Witch's icy grip seems unyielding, the arrival of Aslan brings hope and beauty to the holiday season.
Courtesy of David Andrews
With original choreography by Norton and captivating battle scenes choreographed by Gregory Gonzales, the story comes alive to the melodious tunes of Edward Elgar and Arthur Sullivan. However, what truly sets this production apart is the exceptional work of George Peters, the man behind the stunning animal masks and costumes created at Air Works Studio in Boulder. Peters admits that he was not familiar with the story before taking on the project.

"I was introduced to it by Ilena," he says. "I hadn't read the book, so I went and watched the BBC version of the book, which got me excited about it. Mainly because Ilena was doing something besides The Nutcracker, which I think is quite revolutionary in the realm of ballet and the ballet companies. Almost all the ballet companies in the country, if not the world, depend on The Nutcracker to take them to the next year financially. This was a brave move for Ilena to make and kind of throw something new into the mix of the Christmas shows."
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"I'm hoping that we can make it our special niche holiday ballet," says Norton.
Courtesy of David Andrews
Peters's meticulously crafted masks are a visual feast. "I wanted to make it something special and slightly on the real side instead of the fantasy level, so it appeals to both adults and children," Peters says. "I didn't want to do cartoon characters." The masks are made out of lightweight paper fold templates painted theatrically to ensure that the masks fit securely over the dancers' heads, ensuring a seamless performance.

"Another big issue we thought a lot about was whether to put the animals in fur or not," Norton says. "We ended up deciding to use unitards because it would show the physical form much better on the dancers...so George painted the unitards in animal-type patterns."

Norton's choreography, rooted in classical ballet but infused with modern flair, brings the complex story to life on the stage. But translating the rich narrative of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe into dance was a challenge, she notes.

"My style is somewhat classically based, but I incorporate more modern ideas and techniques into my choreography," Norton says. "That's sort of the foundation of where I start, and building the narrative is probably the most challenging part of ballet because this story is quite complicated; ballets usually have more simple storylines, but this is a much more detailed and complicated story.

"I'm hoping that we can make it our special, niche holiday ballet," she continues. "Ballet Ariel really specializes in creating original works, so for me, it was always a little bit discordant to do The Nutcracker every year, because it wasn't what we were about. This is much more in character of who we are as a company and what our mission is."

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe runs Friday, December 22, and Saturday, December 23, at the Parson Theatre, 1 East Memorial Parkway Entrance, Northglenn. Get tickets at balletariel.org.
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