It’s no accident that HIS Dance Ensemble’s production of The Toymaker: An Easter Story bears little resemblance to the traditional Easter fables.
“It’s the common story of Easter based on the Christian faith and we’re telling it allegorically through the eyes of toys in a toy shop,” said Hannah Sullivan, co-artistic director for HIS Dance Ensemble.
That doesn’t mean the production is just for Christians, however. The goal was to create a ballet that conveys the themes of Easter — love, grace and redemption — while also being fun and accessible.
The production involves 85 performers and more than 100 volunteers, making it the biggest endeavor by far for the dance ensemble. With the exception of a few guest artists, the majority of the performers are children and teenagers who range in age from five to 18.
As the dancers rehearse, they learn from each other and work to create and recreate the story, said Tassia Johnson, the dance ensemble’s other co-artistic director.
“It’s recreation in another sense, because we try to improve everything. We are learning about what’s been working and what’s not working,” Johnson said. “Teamwork is advocated and we’re allowing people to grow with different ideas.”
The dancers are encouraged to banter among themselves and offer their opinions, which results in a better way of telling the story, Johnson said.
“We end up surprising our audience every single time. Our goal is not to make a typical dance experience,” she said. “We want to create an experience that is memorable, inspiring and interesting. We want to keep people engaged in a story that’s told almost without words.”
“How do we ask a group of nearly 100 students to share a story through movement — that’s the very heart of the challenge and we love being able to embrace that challenge with our students,” Sullivan said.
The students tell a story focusing on a toymaker and the toys he goes to great lengths to create in unique and special ways. Tourists who happen upon the toy shop gravitate to the more sparkly toys, like a music box, while giving scant attention to the more ordinary toys like the ragdolls. As the story goes along, the toymaker introduces a mystical serpent doll who seizes upon the opportunity to lure the overlooked toys away.
“They realize that the serpent isn’t good for them and the toymaker sends his son to rescue them,” Sullivan said.
The two artistic directors developed the storyline for the ballet at the request of their bosses at HIS Dance Ensemble. They have been working together since 2007.
The original home for the dance ensemble was in the basement of one of the student’s homes. Johnson said she met with parents who shared their vision. Sullivan developed a five-year plan and ballets were developed.
“We have a student ballet company housed within our studio and once they’ve reached a certain level of training, they can be in the dance ensemble,” Sullivan said. “We’ve got the freedom, if writing new works, to create stories that we hope have social relevance. We train them to be classical ballet dancers and prepare them for contemporary works.”
The Toymaker story was created after.
“Our bosses wanted us to come up with an Easter ballet that would be acceptable to people of different faiths,” Johnson said.
The challenge was creating a story that would connect with their students while building a relevant ballet for everyone. As part of that, the choreography in the Toymaker is contemporary and includes hip-hop.
“This is an eclectic view of dance and we worked with our students to figure out how that dance tells the story and moves the audience from one emotion to another emotion,” Johnson said. “This is a tremendous opportunity for our students. Each dancer involved in this production is making their own life sacrifices for this one moment.”
The Toymaker: An Easter Story
HIS Dance Ensemble
The Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Arts and Worship
2300 Plymouth Ave. SE, Grand Rapids
March 3-4, $15, hisdance.org