Truly Modern Dance

From News-Gazette
December 7-13, 2006
By Erika Nelson

Real-life dancers and animated characters will share the stage this month at the Parkland College Theatre in Champaign.

The two will come together in the Christine Rich Dance Theatre’s original play, “Dear Santa,” a theater and dance extravaganza that studio founder and director Rich describes as, “a little ‘Nutcracker,’ a little ‘Wizard of Oz,’ a little, ‘Wicked,’ a little ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ and a little, ‘Toy Story,’ all wrapped up in one.”

The show is at 2 and 7 p.m. December 17 in the Parkland College Theatre.

The idea for combining dance with digital animation in a theatrical production came from Maria Mobasseri, chairwoman of Parkland’s computer science and information technology department, who says the endeavor is one of many initiatives by the Parkland staff to spark an interest in computer science among young females.

“Because a lot of dancers, by nature of the area, are female, we thought this way we could get the female dancers exposed to the technology,” she said. “The idea is that dancers will be exposed to computers and will want to find out how this works.”

Mobasseri, whose daughter takes dance lessons at the Christine Rich Studio, said a Parkland student’s animation project gave her the idea of pairing dance with computer science. She emailed Rich, the two began to brainstorm and the end result was the script for “Dear Santa”. Though the project is enabling the studio and the college to get started pairing computer-generated animation and dance, most of the animation in “Dear Santa” will be used to propel or link the play’s live action.

“We go from live acting into an animated section and back into live action on the stage,” Rich said.

In subsequent years, Rich said she would like to see more of an interaction between the dancers and animation.

“Next year, it’s on the table to incorporate more of an interaction,” Rich said. “It takes so long to render (animated segments) that they wanted to focus on a few things spectacularly. We’re looking at this year as a year-in-progress; we’ll come back next year with a full production.”

Rich said animation will give the overall production a contemporary, entertaining twist.

“It makes for an engaging show,” she said. “Today’s audiences are able to multitask with different streams of information. I’m excited to put together an entertaining show that taps into that.”

Along with tapping into new realms of entertainment, “Dear Santa” will be a learning experience in many ways for the dancers and actors involved.

Mobasseri and Parkland’s staff is planning meetings between the performers and Parkland students to discuss the computer animation aspect of the production.

“The dancers will be able to ask questions about how we do certain things with animation,” she said. “I’m hoping the girls will be interested in the computer science field, as they will be interacting with the animation onstage.”

The connection already seems to be working, as some dancers have enrolled in Parkland’s workshops. Mobasseri recently got an email from a dancer wanting to pursue a career in computer science.

The involvement with the studio is one of the ways the college has attempted to connect young females with computer science. It also has worked with Brownie troops, the Boys and Girls Club and local women’s shelters. The past two summers, Parkland has held workshops for girls focusing on topics such as building and designing Web pages and game making, and it has applied for grants to fund female-only workshops.

“The computer area is portrayed as such a geeky kind of field,” Mobasseri said. “And the media doesn’t help with this stereotype. In movies, computer scientists are portrayed a certain way, but when you actually know (the production) side of it, you open up doors and spark interest in females.”

The partnership between the studio and the college also is a new opportunity for Parkland’s digital media program, as it is the first time students and faculty looked at combining entertainment with dance.

“Who would have thought that computers could be in dance?” Mobasseri said. “I’ve seen it in a few performances, but not of this level, (and) I know that this is an area that is growing.”

Parkland students involved with “Dear Santa” have the added benefit of working on a production that has been co-written and directed by Tony and Emmy award-winning Broadway actor Ben Vereen.

“Our students are very exited about the production, and Parkland is excited that a production with such importance is going to be shown at Parkland Theatre,” Mobasseri said. “When (our students) go to interviews, they can take this with them. It’s good experience and good resume and portfolio building.”

Rich asked for Vereen’s help on the production when she choreographed an honorary piece for an award he received from the Black Theater Alliance. Vereen agreed to help and made a trip to Savoy in August to give the script of “Dear Santa” a look.

“He read the script through one time, and without referring back to it, memorized virtually every line and began tightening scenes and changing characters,” Rich said. “He gave an overhaul that left us with a delightful, entertaining script.”

Vereen’s involvement in “Dear Santa” is a resume booster for dancers, actors and animators alike, but Mobasseri said working with a co-writer and director of his stature will help to raise the community’s awareness of the opportunities available to Parkland students.

“To have a production that is being co-directed by Ben Vereen — and on the education side has our digital media program involved — is a cool thing for the community to see,” she said. “We’re hoping to have more of this so the industry world can be exposed to the fact that this type of work is going on at Parkland. It opens up a lot of doors for a lot of people.”

The cast ranges in age from 4 years through adult. It includes trained dancers, seasoned actors from the community theater scene and newcomers who have been “discovered” along the way.

“We have a great lighting designer who specifically designs for dancers, outstanding costumes, a wide variety of music, some highly entertaining dance scenes that include acrobatics and a big battle scene where the toys have come to the rescue,” Rich said.

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