Humans have been gathering to tell each other stories since the dawn of time. The best of these stories — the ones that endure — do far more than delight and amuse; they also pass along some central, universal lesson about the world, and how we might make it kinder, fairer and a bit more just.
This spring, PDX families can experience the transformative — and sorely needed — power of live performance right here on the city’s main stages. From bilingual plays and legacy theater revivals to full-length story ballets, tales of bravery and heroism abound.
Classical Ballet Academy’s Don Quixote
May 20 at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall
Gathering to see a performance lets communities transcend their differences, even when a particular piece of art doesn’t carry an obvious moral lesson, says Sarah Rigles, director of classical ballet at the Classical Ballet Academy in Southeast Portland.
“People can look at any type of art — it can be performing arts, visual arts, anything — and see different things within the same piece of art,” she says. “It gets people talking. It’s a common ground for them to come together and discuss or watch.”
This spring, CBA will stage the classic story ballet Don Quixote. It’s a full-length production, which is a rare offering outside of formal dance companies, and the extended format presents both challenge and opportunity for serious young dancers like Calla Lichtenwalter, 15.
Don Quixote offers something for everyone, she says, from comedy and intersecting love stories to fanciful dances and dream sequences.
Lichtenwalter, who’s danced at CBA for 11 years, lives, breathes, eats and sleeps dance. Seven days a week, over the course of
30 performances at various venues, dance has been her all-consuming passion, and the medium has rewarded her efforts tenfold, she says: “I gave up going to public school so I could finish school faster and have more time to dance. Although it’s been hard not being social outside of dance, I don’t regret anything.”
Performing live lets her share the art form that’s shaped her so profoundly, and that makes all the sweat equity well worth it: “That’s what helps me get through long days — thinking about being able to perform and share this with other people.”
Sharing is part and parcel to the Portland arts scene, says Rigles — the city is vibrant and abidingly cooperative, with companies, schools and theaters sharing out props, as well as a deep ethos of support.
“I feel like most places respect each other and know that Portland is a good scene for arts, and I think that this city is good about supporting that, too,” she says.
Lichtenwalter is also banking on a lifelong performing arts career. By now, ballet is pretty much in her blood: “I can’t imagine spending this much time on something else,” she says. “I love it so much.”
Northwest Children’s Theater’s Robin Hood
Opening April 22 at Northwest Children’s Theater Mainstage
Young people have been fashioning themselves after heroes ever since Superman first scaled a building, says Northwest Children’s Theater and School resident artist Sam Burns, and that’s a good thing: fearless feats of derring-do are an evergreen reminder of the importance of defending what matters to us most.
Take Robin Hood: This spring, Burns will direct a remount of NWCT’s adaptation of this ageless tale, and its lessons couldn’t be more relevant to modern audiences, he says: “It’s about truth and justice, standing up against a corrupt system. It’s about facing down insurmountable odds when you know what is right.”
Burns has had ample time to ponder Robin Hood’s deeper lessons. When NWCT first staged the play almost a decade ago, Burns, then 19, played the title character (pictured above). After an adolescence spent performing and assisting, he decamped for a stint in New York, then returned to Portland and NWCT, ready to transition from student to teacher.
Burns can’t wait to share his directorial take on this enduring (and highly entertaining) standby: “It’s got all the action and adventure of a classic Robin Hood tale. Lots of sword fighting with hilarious jokes sprinkled throughout. It’s Monty Python meets high adventure!”
The Merry Band is composed almost entirely of high school students this time around, with Robin Hood played by Hillsboro High School student actor David Van Dyke.
“Our Robin has this kind of flawless charm even though he makes all the wrong choices,” says Burns of his successor. “He’s on the wrong side of the law but the right side of morals.”
The play is full of fun, he says, but he also thinks its message of balancing the scales of justice will really hit home with Portland families right now.
“Grabbing a sword and storming a castle is no longer a viable way to solve your problems, but getting your friends together to raise money, organizing a protest and raising awareness on social media all are,” says Burns. “Standing up for what is right will always be relevant.”
Oregon Children’s Theatre’s Tomás & the Library Lady
Opening April 1 at the Winningstad Theatre
Tell a child the right story at the right moment, and you just might inspire him or her to achieve something incredible. The enduringly powerful might of story-as-a-medium is on full display at the Oregon Children’s Theatre’s springtime show, Tomás and the Library Lady, which chronicles the life of Chicano author, poet and educator Tomás Rivera.
In this bilingual stage adaptation of the same-titled children’s book, Rivera, the lonely son of Mexican migrant workers, strikes up a friendship with a Midwestern librarian — a chance encounter that kindles in young Tomás a passion for learning that leads him all the way to the chancellorship at the University of California, Riverside.
Tomás strikes personal chords for director Rebecca Martinez and West Sylvan Middle School eighth-grader Marcelino Hernandez, who plays young Tomás.
Martinez has deep ancestral roots in the area now known as New Mexico, where her Mexican family had lived for two centuries before the land was officially declared a U.S. state in 1912. Martinez herself grew up in Nebraska and Colorado, and though English was her first language and Spanish her second, she still felt the sting of discrimination.
Latino kids struggle with issues of identity and acceptance to this day, she says, from outsized worries over immigration status to passing taunts.
Discrimination is real, despite its often-subtle forms, agrees Hernandez: a joke shared among friends, a vaguely racist comment shouted out in the hall between classes.
“I’ve had it happen to me plenty of times,” he says. “What am I gonna do? I just laugh and sit back. But it’s not good, and it does happen in our schools.”
Hernandez is reading up on Rivera’s life and achievements as he prepares for his part, and he’s learning some surprising things about own family’s heritage in the process.
“My dad worked in the fields when he first came to America,” says Hernandez. “And he explained to me the story. We hadn’t really talked about him moving from Mexico
Hernandez hopes Rivera’s story will spark pride in young audience members of Mexican heritage. Martinez believes the show’s universal themes — the power of imagination, the importance of family support and mentorship — will inspire greater tolerance in viewers of all backgrounds. “Theater has the power to surprise and delight and to move, and it gives the audience an opportunity to learn and practice empathy for stories that may be very different from theirs,” she says.
Tears of Joy Theatre’s Petrouchka
March 11 at CSZ Portland.
When you’re little, the world can seem an enormous — and enormously intimidating — kind of place.
Viewing the jumble through an artist’s eyes helps kids make sense of things, says Tears of Joy Theatre owner Emily Alexander; it’s a kind of kaleidoscope through which young people may encounter the world’s many colors, shapes and configurations in a more approachable form.
“When we learn to look at the world from the artist’s lens and point of view, we move beyond our initial judgments, look deeper, and allow for alternative possibilities,” she says. “We grow beyond our limitations.”
Connecting young people to the richness of world cultures has been key to the TOJ mission since the days when Alexander’s parents ran the show, Alexander says: “My father (who founded TOJ) has always said that children are the most important audience in the world. I understand that now more than ever.”
This spring, Tears of Joy will offer one showing of Petrouchka — the story of a humble circus clown who falls in love with a beautiful ballerina, set to Stravinsky’s classic score.
Kids will revel in the cosmopolitan, circus-like atmosphere of the show, which includes real-life circus acts, plus Japanese Bunraku-style puppets, masks and full-body puppets.
When young people emotionally engage with such stories, Alexander says, their hearts and minds can’t help but grow larger: “We automatically relate with the characters, and react in poignant ways. The story makes an impact. We learn without resistance when we learn without judgment and without guilt. We are simply open to experience, and we expand.”
“ … children are the most important audience in the world. I understand that now more than ever.” Emily Alexander.
It’s a Classic
These kid-friendly classical music picks playing at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall this spring hit all the right notes.
Oregon Symphony: See musical scores from Harry Potter and other enchanted tales come to life during Castles and Wizards on March 19, then experience the magic of Disney through the pairing of classical Disney tales like The Lion King and Frozen with sweeping scores performed by the Oregon Symphony Orchestra on May 5. Dreams do come true!
Portland Youth Philharmonic: Catch PYP’s talented young performers May 7, performing work by Dvoˇrák and an original commission. And don’t forget to pay a visit to the pre-show instrument petting zoo!
Metropolitan Youth Symphony: Join the energetic MYS Symphony and Baroque Orchestras for a Downtown Concert Series performance June 4. You’ll be swaying right along in your seat.