The competition between aspiring young ballerinas for the lead role and the perception of an uneven playing field is the essence of Reaching for Starlight, the play featured at Geordie Theatre April 26 to May 5.
It is billed as one of the biggest shows in the company’s 39-year history, a mix of theater and dance with 12 performers. The onstage drama is laced with lots of ballet, contemporary dance, and hip hop, propelled by a wide-ranging sound track and an elaborate production design.
The production has a very personal genesis for award-winning director Mike Payette, who three years ago commissioned the writer, Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, to develop a play after he was inspired by the children’s picture book, A Dance Like Starlight by Kristy Dempsey, that he read to his step-daughter. It was the first play he commissioned after being named artistic director.
A two-time Governor-General’s award nominee, St. Bernard worked in partnership with Playwright’s Workshop during the three-year gestation period and Véronique Gaudreau mapped out the choreography.
In the scenario, Reenie wants to follow in her mother’s footsteps and dance.
She’s highly motivated, believes she has the right stuff, and vies for the coveted solo at the year-end school recital. Then a cloud casts a shadow over the starlight dream when Reenie discovers that her teacher, Maestra, is not holding everyone to the same standard. She wonders why her friend Maia is getting what she sees as second-class treatment.
The play raises issues: Is there always a level playing field? Is winning what it’s all about? Should we intervene when we witness perceived injustice? It is the last in a series of plays programmed by artistic director Payette and highlighting “young people’s courage in today’s society, and before it, who have made changes against seemingly insurmountable odds to create a better, kinder, more accepting, and tolerant future for everybody, regardless of where you come from.”
“This story is about recognizing when there is an injustice, articulating it, and then doing something about it, and it all comes from the power of a young person, the advocate for change,” Payette said.
Bria McLaughlin, who plays Reenie “fits the traditional mould of what a classical ballet dancer would look like” and benefits from the support of her mom, played by Warona Setshwaleo, who danced as a youngster. Reenie notices that Maia, a fellow student played by Karen Roberts, does not seem to be getting equal treatment. Both are black, so the tension that develops is not about stereotyping, but more about class and home environment. As cast, the students are about 11.
Jane Wheeler plays the Maestra and her real life daughter Jenna Wheeler-Hughes is cast as one of the students. Shawn Campbell plays Pops and Curtis Legault his son, Jo.
Says Payette: “It becomes a question of who has access, based on not only cultural means, but financial means to do what they want to do. On an artistic level, there has to be an opening so everyone gets to play in the playground.”
The recorded music, assembled by veteran sound designer Rob Denton, is a blend of classical and contemporary music, including Igor Stravinsky’s masterpiece, The Firebird, which Payette says is “a pivotal marker for the whole production. All the students are vying for a solo at the year-end recital and the solo is from The Firebird.”
The play is on for five performances at the D.B. Clarke Theatre of Concordia University, 1455 de Maisonneuve Blvd., one of which is sold out. Tickets remain for the opening April 26, 7 pm, and matinees at 2 pm April 28, May 4, and May 5. Click on geordie.ca or call 514-845-9810.
To expand its audience, Geordie Theatre is offering kids up to age 12 free tickets if accompanied by a senior 60+ who purchases a regular ticket. The offer is for performances on Sunday afternoons, 2 pm, April 28 and May 5.
The play is appropriate for children seven and up and fits Geordie’s philosophy of creating work for all ages, says Artistic Director Mike Payette.
“In this case we are presenting a play where the adults do not have all the answers, and we are witnessing kids, understanding what they are going through, and exploring how we can have the conversations that are sometimes really difficult.”