Finding the heart of a ‘Lion’

By Dagney C. Ernest | Nov 29, 2017
Photo by: Dagney C. Ernest African drummer Namory Keita, standing right, speaks with Kinetic Energy Alive students and teacher Kea Tesseyman, to his left, before a rehearsal at the Camden studio.

Rockport — Five dozen dancers, ages 6 to 60, will take to the Strom Auditorium stage the first weekend of December to perform a piece of dance theater that has been more than a year in the making.

Kinetic Energy Alive Dance Productions’ “The Lion King: A Brothers’ Tale” has two performances only: Saturday, Dec. 2, at 7 p.m.; and Sunday, Dec. 3, at 2 p.m. at Camden Hills Regional High School, off Route 90.

Many know the narrative of “The Lion King,” first told in an animated Disney movie and later brought to the Broadway stage. This original adaptation offers a backstory for the tale’s one good/one bad brother, questioning the simplistic dichotomy that grounds many a children’s tale.

The Camden company’s founder and artistic director, Kea Tesseyman, wrote and choreographed this dance theater adaptation; truth be told, she has been inspired to dance to “The Lion King” for 25 years. When she was 9, her father, who died several years ago, gave her the movie soundtrack — and she found a way to deal with the bullying she was encountering in her real life by imagining, and dancing, life as the show’s characters on her own.

Bullying has been the subject of KEA’s Power Performances, exploring the bully as well as the bullied. That dynamic first intrigued Tesseyman via “The Lion King” — was Mufasa always good and Scar always a villain? What about the kids she “never fit in with?”

“No matter how cruel others were, I always wondered why they were cruel and what happened to them,” she said. “Maybe they just need to be understood and to understand.”

“The Lion King: A Brothers’ Tale” opens with an incident that leads to a reinterpretation of the familiar story that follows. The narration heard over the dancing was recorded by Jordan Shabani, originally from the Congo. And Namory Keita, an international teacher and performing artist originally from Guinea, worked with the show’s core dancers in early November.

The dancers knew Keita from their attendance of High Mountain Hall’s annual African dance workshop with Youssouf Koumbassa, where Keita drummed. Tesseyman got guidance from Keita around her dance theater work and said he was pleased with her story. During his November visit, he spoke of his hard early life and his passion for drumming, which brought him through it.

“We all come from one mother, but we are all different. Each person has a personality and nuance to share with them and it takes a lot of energy to do it,” he said. “That’s why we say to you guys to keep doing — you will make it. Don’t give up!”

The core dancers appear in most of the scenes and include the company’s youngest member, Cece Kulik; a number of teens and young adults; and older dancers, too. Several are dance/movement teachers themselves, including 5-Rhythm/Open Floor instructor Pete Yanz, who plays Mufasa; some are returning to dance after decades, such as Carla White, who plays Rafiki; and others will be performing as dancers at the Strom for the first time.

The latter include Karen Colburn and her son Tom, who has Down syndrome. Tom participated in a 2016 KEA summer camp and went on to take classes at the studio. One, in Horton Technique, focuses on training Tesseyman learned from Alvin Ailey and the Taylor technique school in New York City —“serious learning,” as opposed to the more free-form camp.

“I talked to him like I expected the same from him as I did out of the most talented dancer in there. And he rose so high to the occasion,” Tesseyman said at the time. “I think he was meant to train his listening through dancing like this.”

Tom has stuck with the dance classes, which became prep for the show. Recently, Karen’s schedule changed so that she could join the cast, as well. She said she is pleased to find a mixed-age activity where both can engage, “where I am challenged to make my own progress as a dancer, where I am challenged to let my boy be, so he can navigate in his own manner, and where my boy is welcomed and encouraged to participate right along with the rest.”

She credits both Tesseyman’s teaching and the other students’ willingness to bring Tom into the fold.

“He feels welcomed and encouraged, which breaks my heart with joy,” Karen said.

“This is a community show," said Tesseyman. “Everyone has come together to break segregation of age or ability and style to join in for this magnificent story.”

A variety of dance styles are incorporated into the dance theater production. In addition to modern, there are hip-hop, jazz and elements of African dance. The music includes selections from “The Lion King, Original Broadway Cast Recording,” the “King Arthur: The Legend of The Sword” soundtrack by Daniel Pemberton and Hennie Bekker’s “African Tapestries” series.

The fusion of music and choreography drew local African dance teacher Denyse Robinson into the cast.

“It’s working my brain in another way and forcing me to get out of my comfort zone, which I really like,” she said during a rehearsal break.

“At the same time, it’s still embodying everything that African dance does, because it’s about Africa and feels very African, even though it’s modern, so all that joy and groundedness feel really familiar,” she said.

Another dancer drawn to the show’s African vibe is White, who has been studying at the studio for almost four years. This is her first theatrical role, and it’s a big one.

“One thing I’m enjoying about playing Rafiki is that she’s got so many moods. There’s been a lot of growth, working on it,” White said.

Tesseyman’s son, Adrian Pierce, has a big role too, playing Simba. Having grown up in dance, he appreciates the time and effort the large cast is putting in for the one-weekend show.

“I feel that what drives this dance show is when people just drop what they’re doing to come to the studio and feel comfortable and dance from their hearts,” he said.

A small contingent within the show has plenty of heart, but has had to wrap their heads around being in a dance production in the first place. Social worker, diversity advocate, bullying prevention educator and martial artist Chuck Nguyen previously worked with Tesseyman on a dance that explored the root of bullying. This time, she wanted his students to join him as warriors.

“Some of his guys are carpenters, ski patrol and local teachers, and these guys courageously showed up to my studio,” she said. “And now, whether they admit it or not, they are dancers!”

Actually, Nguyen said, they are not admitting it. But they bring something special to the show.

“It’s really opened our eyes and we found a new, I think, masculine energy of dance here and it’s changed us,” he said. “Three of my guys have threatened to take my life after this, because we’re actually moving like dancers.”

At the rehearsal, a first-time sequential run-through of most of the numbers, Tesseyman encouraged her dancers to appreciate the here and now, rather than focus on the two performances fast approaching.

“The most important thing about producing a show, in my experience, is this time, when we’ve been working on it long enough to know what we’re doing, but we still really don’t know what we’re doing,” she said. “Not the time when we’re on stage and everyone just sees us with our makeup and our costumes and what their idea of our perfection is.”

Perfection is not what Delisa Morong is expecting; the 50-something dancer is new to the discipline and said she thinks she is kind of the troupe’s problem child.

“I started last December and jumped in! But she’s a very good teacher. She expects a lot of us, but she keeps things very lighthearted,” said Morong, one of the show’s impressive pride of lionesses.

Tesseyman’s own role cannot be described as lighthearted; she plays Chokwadi, who becomes Scar. Part of the production design uses white, black and red paint to represent the characters’ choices as they face moral, emotional, physical and spiritual challenges. Tesseyman does not see Scar as black-hearted, the way Disney does.

“Scar just had something happen to him. But he was so overwhelmed with emotion and experience of conflict and resentment that he blocked his spirit from opening and could not bear to feel all of the pain — he wanted to numb it out instead of let it go and forgive,” she said.

This analysis of the show’s villain goes back to Tesseyman’s first interaction with “The Lion King,” and it continues to give her hope. In overcoming her own demons as a 9-year-old, she learned how people are affected by betrayal, forgiveness, acceptance, love, community and loss differently. Twenty-five years later, “The Lion King: A Brothers’ Tale” shares that discovery … and more.

“We unite through openness and trust and leaning into one another, to heal and rebuild. Something this world needs a little bit of,” Tesseyman said.

Tickets for Kinetic Energy Alive’s “The Lion King: A Brothers’ Tale” are $15 at Zoot Coffee in Camden; online at kineticenergyalive.com; and at the door, as available. Seating begins a half-hour before curtain.

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