New twist on Dance Classic

Town rallies to build floor for dance company's unusual interpretation of 'Swan Lake'

Posted: Thursday, October 17, 2002

The Juneau Arts and Humanities Council's biggest event of the season, the Australian Dance Theatre, almost fell apart last week. "Talk about a community that has stepped up to the plate at the last minute," said arts council director Sybil Davis.

Despite a few snags, the dance company will perform as scheduled Wednesday, Oct. 23, thanks to a cadre of volunteers and local businesses that have offered to donate materials and labor to build a dance floor on the stage at Centennial Hall.

A dozen dancers and their support crew from Adelaide, Australia, are touring the West Coast this fall performing "Birdbrain," a thoroughly modern interpretation of "Swan Lake." Blending gymnastics, hip-hop, acrobatics, contemporary music and costumes with classical ballet, the performance suggests rather than tells the traditional story.

When Davis booked the group last spring, she said she explained to the dance group's agency that Juneau's auditorium was being remodeled and the dance company would be performing in the convention center - Centennial Hall - on a portable stage. The agency said that was fine.

Last week she spoke with the dance company's technical directors and the story was different.

"They said the portable stage at Centennial Hall was unsuitable for dance," Davis said. "It's too hard and has no give. The seams are metal. It was a disaster."

Davis said dancers need a floor that offers some spring and resilience. Ideally, dance studios and stages have what's called a sprung-wood floor, Davis said, where the flooring is installed in such a way that it is raised off the subfloor so it can flex.

"A dancer's career is short enough as it is, with the physical demands on their bodies," Davis said. "This company is very athletic, and leaping and landing on a floor with no give is too hard on them. It's dangerous."

Davis said she could have canceled the show with no contractual penalties, because the agency made the mistake. But she wasn't ready to give up.

She and stage and lighting designer Toby Clark, an experienced Perseverance Theatre technician and the Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium manager, began brainstorming ideas and options. Renting and shipping a portable floor from Anchorage would run $6,000. A better idea emerged.

They figured they could resurface Centennial Hall's portable stage with a resilient wood "floor" made of tongue-in-groove plywood. A double-thick layer of carpet padding will underlie the plywood, and the whole laminate will be tightly bound together with Tyvek tape.

Davis said Valley Lumber is loaning and delivering 62 sheets of plywood for the project. Paul's Floor Service is providing the carpet pads. Davis is still looking for a half-dozen volunteers to help fasten the floor together next week, and she has complimentary tickets for helpers who come forward.

The start of the Australians' West Coast tour coincided with the longshoreman's strike, and when they were ready to open the first performance in California they discovered their costumes and set pieces were stranded on a boat off the coast.

"They had to fly in stuff for the show at Stanford," Davis said. "From the get-go it's been hard for these guys, too."

The Australian Dance Theatre's performance of "Birdbrain" last year in New York received strong reviews from the New York Times. Davis called the show a deconstruction of Tchaikovsky's classic.

"They are exploring and analyzing the archetypes and putting a twist on them," she said.

Davis said choreographer and artistic director Gary Stewart has fused break dancing, contemporary dance theater, classical ballet, yoga and gymnastics in "Birdbrain."

"Ballet was always very upright," she said. "Then modern dance came along and they changed the look, in space, of the body. They made it much more exciting and passionate. And now this is taking it one step further."

The Australian Dance Theatre performs at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 23, at Centennial Hall. Tickets are available at bookstores for $20, $15 for students and seniors, and $65 for a family pass. Tickets are $2 more at the door.

A performance will be offered for students only Tuesday at Marie Drake Building, and teachers interested in bringing a class should contact the arts council at 586-2787 for details.

Riley Woodford can be reached at

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