Matthew Keefe wants to get one thing straight right from the start: The Children’s Dance Theatre production of “The Mermaid” has very little in common with the well-known Disney movie of “The Little Mermaid.”
“We’re trying to be clear of Disney,” said Keefe, who is directing and choreographing the ballet, which runs March 11-13 at Mayo Civic Center. “It’s a familiar story, but different in a lot of ways.”
Both the Disney feature and the CDT production are based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale about a mermaid princess who wishes to leave the sea and become human.
“There have been many retellings of the story,” Keefe said. “We’ve taken the Andersen story and adapted it for ballet.”
And therein lies the challenge for Keefe, his 50 dancers and the costumers and technicians of Children’s Dance Theatre. There are no guidelines for a dance production that has not previously been staged.
“Every year our productions are original productions, not something that’s been done before,” said Sheila Sullivan, managing and creative director of CDT. “You start with nothing and you say, ‘OK, in six or nine months we have to have a big show put together.'”
Keefe began with Andersen’s story, a suggestion that Claude DeBussy’s “La Mer” (“The Sea”) serve as music for the ballet — and little else. “It was a great jumping-off point,” Keefe said of DeBussy’s music..
And even “La Mer” would prove to be a challenge. For one thing, it’s not long enough to cover an entire ballet. Secondly, DeBussy’s impressionistic music is not familiar territory for ballet dancers.
“Ballet music is clear-cut,” Keefe said. “This wasn’t made for ballet.”
Still, once “La Mer” was in place Keefe turned to more of DeBussy’s music for the ballet. “I really wanted to stick with one composer to keep it cohesive,” he said.
Adjustments have been made in the script and choreography as the music has been melded with the fairy tale. Now, with one week to go before “The Mermaid” is to be performed, Keefe said of his dancers, “They’re embracing the adventure.”
The production will include puppets of jelly fish and sting rays, flying by the dancers and scenes taking place on both sea and and. “And there’s a shipwreck in this,” Keefe said. “How is that going to happen?”
The dancers range in age from 5 through high school. From the start, Keefe has emphasized the professional approach that is central to CDT’s major productions. For example, dancers are referred to as “ladies” and “gentlemen,” rather than “kids.”
Keefe, a Minnesota native, took up dance at the relatively advanced age of 19, holds a master of fine arts degree in dance from the University of Iowa, has danced with professional opera and ballet companies, and has held teaching positions at major dance schools. He recently moved back to Minnesota with his wife, dancer Brittany Keefe, and the couple’s 2-year-old daughter.
“I was away from Minnesota, but now I’m back and it’s been fun to re-engage with the community,” he said.
While he has danced and worked in Rochester, this is the first time Keefe has worked with CDT.
“I give them a lot of credit for their ambition,” he said. “At the end of the day, they want to do a professional level production. They don’t want to dumb it down.”
That requires a lot of extra attention to detail.
“The reward comes when you see the whole show come together and you see how fulfilling it is for the students dancers,” Sullivan said. “That’s our motivation.”
CDT strives for professional-quality ballet
Children’s Dance Theatre of Rochester, founded in 1987, has put on a string of major ballet productions leading up to this year’s “The Mermaid.”
Previous productions include “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “The Adventures of Pinocchio,” “The Chocolate Factory,” “Coppelia” and “Hansel and Gretel.”
Since CDT is not a dance studio, it attracts student dancers from throughout the area for these ballet productions. Professional staff are brought in to direct, choreograph and instruct.
“It’s good for the student dancers to see how professionals work on stage,” said Sheila Sullivan, managing and creative director of CDT. “We have tried to bring this to the level of being as much of a professional experience as we can for the dance students.”
That makes the productions more than just a performance. The entire process, from auditions through rehearsals and finally taking the stage, is a learning experience.
“You think of all the life skills they learn,” said Matthew Keefe, who is directing “The Mermaid.” “We have older dancers working with younger dancers. It’s about togetherness, the value of your presence, learning how to be quiet when you’re not being focused on.”
So, after “The Mermaid” ends its run on the afternoon of March 13, what’s next for CDT?
“We have a meeting scheduled in about two weeks and we’ll start talking about the next show,” Sullivan said.
What: “The Mermaid,” by Children’s Dance Theatre
When: 7 p.m. March 11, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. March 12, 2 p.m. March 13
Where: Mayo Civic Center Presentation Hall
Tickets: $17 in advance, $18 at the door for adults; $15 advance, $16 at the door for children 12 and younger. Tickets available at the civic center box office (no service fee), and through Ticketmaster online, by phone at 800-745-3000 and at Rochester Walmart stores.