Get Ready For Some Fine Gospel Singing And Great Dancing In The Counter-Programmed ‘Book of Esther’ From Ballet Fantastique This Weekend

This was me a couple of weeks ago, thinking about Ballet Fantastique‘s holiday-season program: “Wait, isn’t the Book of Esther an Old Testament story about the Jewish holiday of Purim? Isn’t Purim in the spring? (And what happened to BFan’s great Christmas Carol?)”

Hannah Bontrager, BFan’s co-founder, executive director and co-choreographer (along with her mother, artistic director Donna Marisa Bontrager), laughed at me when I brought all of this up. “Well, we’ve done Book of Esther before, in the spring of 2014, and we wanted to do something fun and different at Christmas.”

She went on, “We like to mix things up in true BFan style … and maybe we got a little Christmas Carol‘d out last year.” And it’s true: There were at least three (maybe four?) fairly large presentations of different versions of the Charles Dickens classic in and near Eugene last year.

bfan-16-esther-photo-by-jerry-gowins
Esther (Leanne Mizzoni) in The Book of Esther, photo by Jerry Gowins

The actual Old Testament Book of Esther is a tale of the near-massacre of Jewish people living in the Persian empire in the 5th century BCE , and their unyielding resistance. (I’ll let you all decide how to apply this story right now.)

But the scheduling came about because BFan has two world premieres in the spring – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in March and Aladdin in May. So here’s an opportunity to see something different from the usual holiday fare, and there’s nothing like hearing Andiel Brown and the UO Gospel Singers with or without ballet. In this case, it’s quite a combination that you can see (or see again!) Dec. 9-11 at the Hult.

The idea came about, as seemingly all BFan collaborations do, on a wave of inspiration. “The Book of Esther is a story featuring really strong female protagonists,” Bontrager said, “especially Esther’s act of bravery in going to the king in a time when women weren’t supposed to speak their minds very often, especially to those in power.”

We’re finding ways to tell the story better. There’s no ego, like this was perfect the first time around; there’s always this sense of exploration: How can we tell this better, how can we do better?

In addition, the Bontragers had been wanting to find a way to work with Brown and the UO Gospel Singers. They lucked into not just music but also a dancer/choir director who could play the part of Mordecai, Esther’s uncle and servant to the king. “Andiel Brown is so creative, and he actually has a football background,” Bontrager said. So when they asked him to do lifts, he was not only into it but perfectly capable.

BFan has live music for every show, but this is slightly different: 36 singers join the dancers on stage. “As a dancer, I’ve performed with lots of live orchestras,” Bontrager says, “but there’s something about being surrounded by these voices – it’s a very big, bold, powerful production.”

Book of Esther, photo by Jerry Gowins
Mordecai (Andiel Brown), the spirt (Hannah Bontrager) and Esther (Leanne Mizzoni), in the Book of Esther, photo by Jerry Gowins

Gospel music, which is by definition about the gospels (the New Testament, aka the story of Jesus and his followers), fits in with a classic Old Testament tale of persecuted and endangered Jewish people in the middle of an empire basically because of slavery and the genre known as spirituals (you can read a lot more about that history here and here).

“They and we have chosen songs that aren’t directly about Jesus,” Bontrager said. “We have old slave spirituals that are part of the production, song about the Underground Railroad. This music talks about overcoming this experience [of being an oppressed people], and having faith that you will overcome this experience.”

Bontrager also talked about the dancer playing Esther. That’s Leanne Mizzoni, who has been with BFan since its early days.

“This is a role where she’s a star. She embodies this reserved power in her personality,” Bontrager said. “We don’t always cast dancers on who they are as a person, but [here] there’s an intersection of a dancer who embodies the character and can access the sentiment, the back story, the nuance, and also has technical prowess. Leanne can just command the stage.”

Bontrager plays a sort of spirit (not really the Holy Spirit as Christians might understand it, but holy spirit) who is always with Esther, shadowing her movements throughout the story. And she’s also a choreographer, along with Donna Marisa, figuring out how to make the second iteration stronger than the first.

“The story of Esther is complex,” she said. “We’re finding ways to tell the story better. There’s no ego, like this was perfect the first time around; there’s always this sense of exploration: How can we tell this better, how can we do better?”

Find out this weekend at the Hult Center. And by the time Purim rolls around on March 11, you’ll be more than ready for a few Hamentaschen to celebrate Esther’s victory over the forces of evil.

*****

Holiday bonus: Find six or more people to go as a group and get $5 off each ticket!

The Book of Esther: A Rock Gospel Ballet
Ballet Fantastique and the UO Gospel Singers
7:30 pm Friday, Dec. 9 and Sat., Dec. 10
2:30 pm Sunday, Dec. 11
Soreng Theater at the Hult Center
Tickets $18-$53 plus ticket fees, available at The Hult Center or 541-682-5000

Suzi Steffen

Suzi has been writing about the arts in Eugene, Ashland and Portland for about 10 years. She loves riding her Torker Trike, Momo; going to performances; reading and writing books; gardening; and watching as many films as possible in between everything else. Email her at suzi at theeugenereview dot com.

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