By Olivia Wood for The Dance Journal | photo credit: Bob Sweeney
On September 15, 2019, Maddie Rabin presented the third and final showing of her Fringe Festival production, Sprout: A Full-Length Not-a-Ballet, at the Panorama Arts Collective. The space, a humid and rather obscure warehouse, was surprisingly welcoming. Cutouts of trees, leaves, and flowers lined the edges of the performance space, and the room glowed with warm light.
A group of musicians serenaded the audience members as they entered the space; the lilting notes of an accordion, an instrument that would prove to be an integral character in the story, created a Parisian ambiance. Arranged by Liz de Lise and composed by Addie Herbert with contributions from Rabin and Molly Burke, the live music accompanied the entire performance and enlivened the show.
Once the audience settled, the music hushed briefly as narrator Dawn Pratson stood and began to recount the tale of a young Sprout, portrayed by Rabin herself, who uproots herself from her chilly meadow in search of the leaf she lost. Thus ensued a series of misadventures in which the Sprout travels across the world, makes friends with the raucous swamp creatures, (portrayed by Sarah Owens and Winfield Maben), falls in love with an accordion (Sevon Wright), loses another leaf, and is finally swept back home by the Sun and Wind (Stephanie Stevens) where she eventually comes to flourish.
Some obvious themes, such as patience, seeking belonging, and friendship quite literally leaps off the page during this guileless and whimsical performance. The protagonist’s archetypal character arc brushes with cliché. It brings to mind L. Frank Baum’s classic novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, as the Sprout only blooms when she returns home from her harrowing journey.
Rabin’s choreographic choices throughout the piece were simple and at times predictable. The movements, which were well-rehearsed and well-executed by the dancers, were quite fluid and had clear balletic influences. The waltz step appeared multiple times as a motif, perhaps to emphasize the romantic nature of the story, or perhaps to mimic the swaying of the Wind that finally brings the Sprout back to her garden. Despite its simplicity, Rabin’s costume design was pleasantly surprising.
Maben and Ownes donned large paper mâché headdresses with long strings attached that enhanced their dancing, for the strings kept swaying even after the dancers stopped. Another unexpected moment occurred during the second half of the performance, during which the Sprout falls in love with an Accordion. Rabin and Wright performed a pas de deux of sorts in which Rabin unclips the bindings of the actual accordion Wright wore on her back. She then took hold of the handle and leaned away, causing the instrument to stretch. It struck me as a clever counterbalance, but the moment was fleeting, and Rabin and Wright quickly transitioned into yet another waltz sequence.
In all, Rabin’s choreography, story, and design created a family-friendly, innocent experience. Like a children’s book, the not-a-ballet utilized elementary methods to convey complex and universal themes. It served as a heart-warming reminder that suffering is temporary, winter will thaw, and sprouts will eventually grow and bloom.