Scott Sneddon is Senior Editor on SesayArts Magazine where he is also a critic and contributor.
The 26 Letter Dance, showing at Young People’s Theatre (YPT) until March 16, has a singularly well-chosen title. The show, aimed at 4 to 8 year olds, is produced by Québec’s Bouge de là, a professional dance company whose sole focus is the creation of dance presentations for children. So the word “Dance” is important. The show takes a multi-disciplinary approach by including narrative elements, manipulatives, music and even some singing, but this is first and foremost a Dance – not a play or a musical. As you would expect from the title, the show’s focus is the alphabet. But naming it the “26 Letter Dance”, as opposed to the more obvious “Alphabet Dance”, speaks to the variety, creativity and unpredictability with which this show approaches the alphabet’s 26 letters. Instead of one homogenous alphabet, the show uses dance to place a roving spotlight on the uniqueness, differences and connections among the 26 letters.
The show has a simple but wonderfully interactive premise. 15 minutes before the show starts, the four dancers (Ariane Boulet, Joannie Douville, Alexandre Parenteau and Georges-Nicolas Tremblay) enter the stage, and disperse into the audience. They are looking for letters in audience members’ names. The individual dancers give their undivided and unrushed attention to their conversations with young audience members. When a child provides a letter, the dancer proudly makes their way to the stage, pronouncing they have “found” the letter, which is promptly drawn onto the blackboard at the back of the stage. Once all 26 letters have been “found”, the show can begin. Then, during the show, these letters are gradually erased from the blackboard after they are danced by the troupe – helping us track the progress of the 26 Letter Dance.
The way the letters are danced is itself surprising – and defies adult expectation. The show opens with elaborate dance associated with the letter A, and ends with a foot-stomping, crowd-pleasing and equally elaborate dance associated with Z . . . but in between, it is entirely unpredictable. Alphabetical order is ignored. Moreover, all letters are not created equal: some have engrossing micro-narratives built around them, while others are merely shown, and never focused on for their sounds or the words they appear in. My adult brain craved a more consistent approach (“don’t just show the letters – actually use them!”) . . . but partway through the show, as I looked around at engrossed children reacting with interested observations and movements of their own, I realized that I needed to get over myself. This is not an alphabet show for adults. It’s a dance show – almost a variety show using dance – for children. The disorientation I was experiencing as an adult was almost certainly creating some of the little ones’ pleasure.
And the children in the audience were certainly enjoying what they saw. The dance numbers are athletic and engaging. They balance high-energy hip-hop and Zumba numbers with quieter moments where the dancers emote full-bodied fear and joy centered around their interaction with one or more letters. The show is at its best when using black light and projections to create arresting visual effects – some real “wow” moments marry mesmerizing use of technology with smart, creative body movements and electronic soundscapes.
And gratifyingly, this is that rare alphabet show that will appeal to even the most academically advanced child. It does not talk down to children with consistently simple, monosyllabic terms. As but one example, I is for Improvisation… so when it’s time for “I”, the troupe does an improvisational dance based on an “I” word pulled from a hat. (Here is a rare missed opportunity for audience interaction. It would be lovely to ask the children for “I” words to dance about… either during or before the show if necessary). The day I saw the show, the troupe improvised a dance about “Impulsion” – a word that I don’t think I’ve ever seen used, and would wager was equally unfamiliar to most adults in the audience.
Perhaps the most engrossing aspect of the show – and the best proof of its value as an experience – is the running commentary it elicits from children in the audience. They chatter continuously to make sense of scene changes and unspoken moments (for instance, “H” clearly is being used to depict the idea of “Heavy” … but the word “Heavy” is never spoken; and U and V are yoked together in a long scene leveraging ultraviolet light … but once again, the word is never spoken.) No matter what the show depicts and in what order, children seem nonplussed, immersed . . . and chatty. The 26 Letter Dance is an unfolding, synaesthetic dance puzzle, in which they make sense of each new piece one at a time . . .and connect it to their emerging sense of this show, and their prior knowledge of the alphabet.
So remember . . .. The 26 Letter Dance is not a show for you, grown ups. But if you can switch off your adult brain’s expectations for 65 minutes, and experience the show through the child brains around you, you will revel in this kinetic – and unexpectedly alinear – approach to the alphabet.
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What: The 26 Letter Dance, created, directed and co-choreographed by Hélène Langevin; Co-choreographed by Jean-François Légaré; Produced by Bouge de là
Performed by Ariane Boulet, Joannie Douville, Alexandre Parenteau and Georges-Nicolas Tremblay
Who: Audiences 4 – 8 years of age
When: On stage until March 16; Run Time: approximately 65 minutes (no intermission and not including post-show Q&A)
*Relaxed Performances: Mar. 7, 12:45 PM (school) and Mar. 10, 2:30 PM (public)
Where: Young People’s Theatre Mainspace, 165 Front Street East, Toronto, ON
Curriculum Connections: Kindergarten Curriculum, Language, Dance & Movement
Seven Ancestral Teachings: Honesty, Humility
Themes: The Joy of Dance, How We Communicate, Combining (or) Exploring Language and Movement
Info and Tickets: youngpeoplestheatre.ca
© 2019 Scott Sneddon, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine