The Cuyahoga Valley Youth Ballet’s annual performance at the Akron Civic Theatre this weekend will be a study in contrasts, as the dance company reprises Miss Spider’s Tea Party — a longtime favorite based on a popular children’s story — and launches the world premiere of Tom Gold’s ragtime-infused Joplin Jamboree.
Mia Klinger, artistic director for the company, said she called upon New York-based Gold, one of the group’s favorite choreographers, to create a piece for them. She asked for a new ballet based on material that inspired him, custom designed to her dancers’ talents and set to music of his choice.
Having choreographed everything from The Little Mermaid to A Christmas Carol for the youth ballet company, Gold this time turned to the piano music style invented by African-American composer Scott Joplin, the King of Ragtime, who lived from 1867 to 1917. Joplin Jamboree opens to the piano strains of the Peacherine Rag, each member of the company sporting a beautiful smile.
Sherbet-colored skirts in lime, pink and peach, with white bodices and lovely lavender bows at the waist, were designed by Gold. The entire effect is fresh and feminine but the girls nonetheless get to add a certain amount of sass in this dance, set to a medley of ragtime tunes, including some Charleston moves and waving of their index fingers.
“The dance moves, of course, go with the era of the music,” Klinger said.
Joplin Jamboree, which is done en pointe but isn’t pure classical ballet, is distinctive for its musicality, with the steps corresponding closely to the music. The work features soloists Annie Carroll, a sophomore at Hudson High School; Kirsten Linnen, a senior at St. Vincent-St. Mary; Megan Klamert, a senior at Our Lady of the Elms; and Ella Davidson, a sophomore at Hametown Christian Academy.
This is the fifth ballet that Gold, a former soloist with the New York City Ballet, has created for the Cuyahoga Falls youth ballet company. Next season, he will choreograph Beauty and the Beast for the company.
“He wants them to pour out their personality … and just genuinely have fun,” Klinger said of the young dancers.
Klamert said the dance style reminds her of the 1920s swing era, and Linnen said she was surprised by its classical-jazzy fusion.
“It just lets us all really break out of ourselves. In Joplin [Jamboree], we can just let loose and throw our hands up in the air,” Linnen said.
“It’s just different from anything I’ve ever done,” said Carroll, who said she enjoys using her shoulders and hips more in the dance.
‘Miss Spider’s Tea Party’
For the second part of the program, renowned children’s author and illustrator David Kirk will return to Akron 16 years after the Cuyahoga Valley Youth Ballet premiered Miss Spider’s Tea Party, a ballet based on his 1994 book.
“At that point, Miss Spider was pretty brand new,” Kirk said of the celebrated series. “Wonderful things were happening one after another at that point with that book.”
Kirk, who has lived in King Ferry in the Finger Lakes area of New York for more than 30 years, has a Northeast Ohio connection: He studied art at the Cleveland Institute of Art in the 1970s.
He said he was excited to see the Miss Spider’s Tea Party dance brought back.
“The quality of the whole show was amazing,” Kirk said of the youth ballet’s 1997 premiere of Miss Spider’s Tea Party. “I’ve never seen anything like it up here.”
Kirk’s daughter Violet, whose love of bugs inspired the Miss Spider books, accompanied him to Akron for the world premiere back then. The memory’s such a fond one, Kirk has original Miss Spider dancer Suzanne Sarver of Tallmadge pictured on his new website, www.davidkirk treehouse.com, under the header Scrapbook.
Next weekend, Kirk, a Columbus native, will be accompanied in Akron by younger daughters Primrose, 12, and Wisteria, 10; his wife, Kathy; and likely his mother, Connie, who still lives in Columbus.
He and his family will see a new generation of Cuyahoga Valley Youth Ballet dancers bring his whimsical insects to life. The adorable bugs in his books, painted with oils on paper in vibrant primary colors, are shown in such close perspective, it seems only natural that they would leap off the page.
“I never thought of Miss Spider in ballet context, so I didn’t know what to expect,” said Kirk, who described the dance as beautiful and elegant.
James Sewell, commissioned by the youth ballet to choreograph Miss Spider, brought these bugs to life seven years before Miss Spider’s Sunny Patch Friends was adapted to TV for the Nick Jr. cable network. He is co-founder, artistic director and choreographer for James Sewell Ballet in Minnesota.
The youth ballet reprised Sewell’s popular Miss Spider dance in 1998 and again in 2006.
In this tale, Miss Spider just wants to make friends and doesn’t understand why all the other bugs keep running away from her. All she wants to do is serve friends tea and cakes.
The message is about acceptance and not judging others.
Author/illustrator Kirk, who also has been a longtime toymaker, said when he was conceiving Miss Spider, he thought a lot about making insects look cute yet real, appealing and magical.
His original drawing of Miss Spider was a skinny arachnid with big pincers on her face that were a bit frightening. She morphed into a delightfully round yellow spider with a cute pointy nose.
Kirk will do signings and his books will be offered for sale Saturday before each show and during intermission.
After years of working on the Miss Spider’s Sunny Patch Friends TV show, which ran more than 50 episodes, as well as developing a retail line of Sunny Patch children’s items for Target, Kirk is getting back into illustrating books.
His new book, the first he has painted in more than 10 years, Oh So Tiny Bunny, came out last month.
“I got to lavish all my time and attention on it,” he said.
Staff writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.