Elizabeth Odell Catlett grew up reading Shel Silverstein. “The Giving Tree,” said Metropolitan Ballet Theatre’s (MBT) artistic director, “is still to this day one of my favorite books. His illustrations were always so clever, and I love that there was often a surprise or catch in the poems.”
This is why Catlett decided to honor the late American author, illustrator, poet and songwriter by choreographing a new work based on his. “I think his poems and illustrations translate well into dance, and I wanted to take on the challenge,” she said.
“I started thinking of the storyline and poems to use in June, and began choreographing in July,” said Catlett, who is in her seventh season with MBT, her fifth as artistic director. “Shel We Dance,” she noted, “did not take long to choreograph because all of the pieces are short and they do not have to transition smoothly from one to the next.” The specific Silverstein poems she selected were from “A Light in the Attic,” “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” “Every Thing On It” and “Falling Up.”
The story is simple, Catlett said: “A girl who is normally bored by books finds a book that comes to life through dance. Each time she turns the page, there are new characters and a new dance. The page turning is the transition.”
Prior to “Shel,” Catlett, who earned a bachelor of science degree in dance education from Radford University, has created one other short ballet and five full-length ballets—including “Thumbelina,” “Snow White,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Stories of Dr. Seuss” and most recently, last March, “Becoming Sugar Plum,” an original fairytale ballet that tells the backstory of the Sugar Plum Fairy.
Catlett said Katerina Rodgaard, in her second season as MBT’s assistant artistic director and third season as an MBT instructor, was assigned to choregraph parts of the ballet and helped her choose appropriate music.
“Finding the music was a challenge,” Catlett said, explaining that “each piece needed to match the feel and the story of each individual poem, but also had to flow and transition from one poem to the next without sounding like a completely different genre.” She decided on composers Rene Aubry and Alexandre Desplat.
The 38-minute-long “Shel We Dance” will be performed by eight professional female dancers who are part of the Metropolitan Ballet Ensemble (MBE), a group that tours with MBT for outreach performances in local schools and senior centers. “The dancers exit the stage numerous times,” Catlett said. “We do have a few group pieces, but a lot of them are solos and duets.”
MBE will perform Catlett’s “Stories of Dr. Seuss” on Feb. 20 at the Arts Barn, and MBT will premiere “Cinderella” in the spring, but for now, Catlett claimed to be out of “new creative ideas.” She is still recovering from “Becoming Sugar Plum,” which “was a huge project. I wrote the ballet, wrote the book, and hired a composer to write and record the score for us.” Doubtless, she added, “I might start thinking more creatively next season.”
Metropolitan Ballet Ensemble will present “Shel We Dance” at 2 p.m. Jan. 22 at MBT’s 60-seat Black Box Theatre, 220 Perry Parkway, #8, Gaithersburg. A craft activity and snacks will follow the show. Tickets are $15, or $16.52 with service fee at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/facebook/2708650. For information, visit www.mbtdance.org or call 301.762.1757.