By Steve Sucato
Although rare in life, those times when opportunity and fate collide can produce a special kind of magic with the power to enrich lives. Such was the case for Inlet Dance Theatre founder/artistic director Bill Wade in 2015 when Daniel Hahn, vice president of Community Engagement and Education at Playhouse Square, asked him to create a dance-theater work geared toward 4-8-year olds and their families as part of the Center’s LAUNCH performance creation residency program.
Given this opportunity, fate then intervened on a wintry day that year when Wade, not inspired by a list of children’s literature options Hahn had given him to make a dance work around, happened into a Barnes & Noble to escape the cold and spotted Kobi Yamada’s 2014 New York Times best-selling children’s book “What Do You Do With An Idea?”on a table. Wade began reading it and says “halfway through the book I got caught up in the story and by its end I was standing there crying.”
Wade says his emotional reaction to the book came from his identifying with the story’s central character of a young boy who has an idea but doesn’t quite know what to do with it. Wade says he felt the same way when the idea to create Inlet Dance Theatre came to him in 2001. As in Yamada’s tale, Wade’s idea for Inlet would not leave him alone until he did something with it; eventually nurturing it to fruition.
Realizing this was the book he wanted to create a dance work around for his Inlet Dance Theatre and Playhouse Square, Wade and Hahn pressed ahead with the project and contacted Yamada for the rights to use the book.
At the idea of turning his book into a dance work Yamada says he was thrilled. “Dance is such a beautiful and athletic art form and just to know my children’s book can be interpreted in such a way is fascinating artistically but also such a great example of how ideas build on ideas,” says Yamada by phone from Seattle. “You put something creative out into the world and it inspires something else creative. You just don’t really know when you drop that pebble in the pond where the ripples end.”
Yamada in a 2015 interview with Vancouver-based podcast Essential Conversations says the inspiration for his book, “What Do You Do With An Idea?,” came from a conversation he had with his staff at Seattle-based publishing and gift company, Compendium, Inc. on the fragility of ideas: “We’ve all had experiences where we have had ideas and we just don’t know if they are good or not…when an idea first comes to you it is in its most fragile state and can be killed with an eye-roll or an exhale…I have witnessed that in my company…its human nature sometimes for us to not quite know what we have before we know what we have.”
To tell Yamada’s story of a young child and his egg-shaped, crown-wearing idea in dance Wade says he wanted to honor what Yamada had written by using the book’s text verbatim. For the work’s choreography and dance sequences Wade says he looked to the book’s lively illustrations by Mae Besom that brilliantly captured the emotions of the book’s characters and the wonder of the world they existed in.
In watching a rehearsal of What Do You Do With An Idea? recently, I found Inlet’s athletic, acrobatic and sculptural movement language a la modern dance standouts Pilobolus, tailor-made for a family-friendly production such as this that is geared toward entertaining and capturing the imagination of young audience members (ages 2 +).
Yamada, who saw an early work-in-progress showing of excerpts from What Do You Do With An Idea?, says Inlet’s dancers brought physical humor to the story. “In some ways the dancing also allows the audience to see in-between the pages and into the lives and interactions of the characters in the book.”
For his part in the dance work’s creative process, Yamada says he only played a consulting role, helping to flesh out the motivations of the book’s characters. So impressed with Inlet’s handling of the relationship in movement between the child and the idea, and of the naysayers of the idea, Yamada says he shared a recording of those excerpts with animators from producer Steve Waterman’s (Stuart Little, Alvin and the Chipmunks) studio Film Roman who are creating an animated short of the book to help inspire them.
Set to a vibrant original score by composer and co-founder of FiveOne Experimental Orchestra, Jeremy Allen and narrated by Cleveland television (WVIZ/PBS) and radio (WCPN) icon Dee Perry, the 45-minute intermission-less production features Kevin Parker as “The child,” Katie McGaha as “The Idea” and a corps of six dancers portraying mice, deer, foxes, townsfolk and a bear along with other non-corporeal elements from the book. The work also features scenic design by Ian Petroni including pop-up book inspired set pieces, costumes by Kristin Wade and lighting by Trad Burns.
“It has been nothing but positive for me,” says Yamada of his experience having his book turned into a dance work. “I love the people at Inlet and Playhouse Square. They have been warm and welcoming to me and my family. The idea of somebody doing something different with the book is the book’s heart and soul. It’s all about believing in those ideas when they first come out. To see something that you created get recreated into a brand new piece of art is an honor and something I would absolutely do again.”
Inlet Dance Theatre performs What Do You Do With An Idea?, co-produced by Playhouse Square, 7 p.m., Wednesday, March 21 at Playhouse Square’s Ohio Theatre, 1511 Euclid Ave., Cleveland. Tickets are $10 (Free for children under age 1) and available at playhousesquare.org, by calling (216) 241-6000, or at the Playhouse Square Box Office.
Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.