Shel Silverstein saw the world through a child’s eyes. His fun and funny poems, books and cartoons – perhaps “Where the Sidewalk Ends” and “The Giving Tree” remain evergreen – have inspired generations of kids and their families to laugh, read, make music and dance.
Germantown resident Elizabeth Odell Catlett caught the Silverstein bug. It is the impetus behind her 40-minute ballet, ”Ourchestra,” a lively and amusing tribute to the instruments that make up a full orchestral ensemble, all expressed through dance. Monday, Feb. 18 – Presidents’ Day — the chamber-sized company Catlett directs, Metropolitan Ballet Ensemble, brings the work to The Arts Barn in Gaithersburg.
Catlett noted that while the piece was intended as an educational program for school-aged children, she found that attendees from ages 4 up through adults enjoy the program. Kids like the silly parts, the narrator’s funny voices and the way the dancers twist, turn fall and flip, while adults appreciate the artistry of the performers and the creativity of the choreography.
“’Ourchestra’ was about using your bodies to create instruments,” Catlett said recently about the Silverstein poem. “The idea was that ‘Ourchestra’ would be an educational ballet that teaches kids about musical instruments.”
She wrote a script and intended to commission a local composer to score the work. Alas, anticipated funding didn’t come through; instead Catlett, and assistant choreographer Katerina Rodgaard, turned to a variety of musical selections ranging from ‘Eugen Cicero’ to Johann Strauss II, Yo-Yo Ma to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and beyond to inspire their dances.
“So you haven’t got a drum, just beat your belly.
So I haven’t got a horn-I’ll play my nose.”
— Shel Silverstein’s “Ourchestra”
The piece features the nine professional dancers of Metropolitan Ballet Ensemble (some of whom also teach in the school) clad in Jennifer Hausdorfer’s elegant costumes. The brief two- to four-minute solos, duets, trios and a grand finale bringing everyone together take viewers through the orchestra’s composition.
Beginning with percussion instruments, the choreography features some quick-footed ballet moves, a smattering of jazzy hip swivels and a suggestion a la Silverstein to “drum on your tummy.” The work progresses through woodwinds – flutes, clarinets, oboes and saxophone – brass – trumpets, trombones and tuba – and strings.
In fact, the string section happens to be Catlett’s favorite: “The cello is one of my favorite instruments. The musical solo is intricate and really beautiful even though it’s only about a minute… [This section] has this fairy sleeping. It’s a contemporary ballet piece — they’re wearing ballet shoes — and … they gracefully fall to the floor.”
Her other favorite is a modern piece featuring a score by cellist Yo-Yo Ma. While it isn’t a showy work, she noted its brooding quality, requiring the performer to imbue it a sense of emotional depth.
Beyond highlighting the instrument families that compose an orchestra, the work also takes a stab at defining the three most-recognized Western concert dance styles: ballet, modern and jazz, often with the supercilious voiceover to keep listeners interested – and snickering.
Metropolitan Ballet Ensemble is based at the Gaithersburg studios of Metropolitan Ballet Theatre, a nonprofit school that teaches children from preschool through adult. In the academy, Catlett and her staff instruct about 200 girls and boys in beginning through advanced levels of ballet, modern, jazz and hip hop. Moving into its 30th year, MBE’s highly trained dancers perform about a 16 times annually in county schools, at affordable venues throughout the county and beyond, in programs that appeal to children, families and senior adults. Next month, the company will premiere “Thumbelina,” another full-length story ballet.
Catlett loves the opportunity to meet and speak to audiences after these community outreach performances. A mom of two preschoolers, she often runs a post-show Q&A particularly encouraging children to ask questions and share their insights – which are often most imaginative.
In an era when arts experiences have proven over and over to benefit both learning and health, Catlett note that there’s no better way to spend a bit of time on Monday morning than at “Ourchestra.”
As Silverstein playfully wrote:
“And though there may be orchestras
That sound a little better
With their fancy shiny instruments
That cost an awful lot —
Hey, we’re making music twice as good
By playing what we’ve got!”
Metropolitan Ballet Ensemble will present “Ourchestra” at 10:30 a.m. Monday, Feb. 18 at the Arts Barn, 311 Kent Square Road, Gaithersburg. Tickets are $15, $12 in advance, $10 for ages 6 and younger. Call 301-258-6394.