As November fades away and December’s bustle begins, an enchanting Bay Area dance favorite returns for its annual two-week run at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts – ODC/Dance’s The Velveteen Rabbit. Alongside an abundance of festive cabarets, wintry revues and many, many versions of The Nutcracker, Velveteen Rabbit is a staple in this region’s holiday calendar. In fact, 2018 marks the thirty-second anniversary of the family-friendly production, created by ODC Co-Artistic Director KT Nelson. It’s actually been some time since I’ve seen the show, eight years to be exact. And it’s been far longer since I’ve read the source material – Margery Williams’ legendary 1922 children’s book. So going into Saturday’s opening performance, I had somewhat fresh eyes. What these eyes saw were deeply developed characters, a cast (the company plus students from ODC’s school) equally skilled at acting and movement, and a touching narrative about connection, transformation and love. Velveteen Rabbit may be geared towards the young but its universal themes transcend age. It’s on until December 9th – go see it and enjoy an uplifting afternoon or evening at the theater.
Even before the houselights dimmed, Velveteen Rabbit had a number of checkmarks in its favor. Its iconic plot centers around the abiding bond between a young boy and his much loved plush toy, a toy that aches to be real. It’s a seasonal tale that is opening right as tree lots are popping up and lights are being strung. And because it’s from ODC/Dance, there are both high production values and great dancers. When the curtain rose, it was clear that Velveteen Rabbit was brimming with even more positives. Nelson and ODC mined the larger story arc for narrative nuance. They revealed plot points and character depth through innovative choreography. Their two-act, sixty-five minute adaptation isn’t just sweet; it’s very, very good.
Mutual devotion and unconditional friendship lie at the heart of Velveteen Rabbit, shown through the many duets danced by the boy (Daniel Santos) and the rabbit (Tegan Schwab). Imbued with affectionate embraces, the various pas de deux saw the pair taking turns providing support and being supported, being lifted and being the lifter. Theirs was a two-way relationship – the boy needed the rabbit and the rabbit needed the boy. But Velveteen Rabbit has many other narrative gems, which Nelson and ODC handily unpacked. They touched on simplicity. In Act I, Scene III, the audience is transported to a packed nursery playroom replete with sparkly, shiny, mechanical action figures and gadgets. Yet, in the face of all that vibrancy and hubbub, it is the unadorned, stuffed bunny that ends up holding a special place in the boy’s heart. In that same scene, the Skin Horse toy, portrayed by James Gilmer, profoundly comments on age and time. He explains to the rabbit that being real is something that only age can bring, occurring when fur and hair become scant, when hues fade, when seams break and rip. In a place like San Francisco, which puts youth at such a premium, that message is quite outside the norm. Pain and loss become part of the picture as the boy and the rabbit are separated; magic, when Rachel Furst’s Fairy transforms the toy into a real being. And in the dance’s final moments, the power of memory and the act of remembering rang true. Though time had passed, the boy and the rabbit, now real, recognized each other and in doing so, recalled their enduring connection.
Choreographic victories abounded too, my favorite being how Nelson marked the passage of time. Velveteen Rabbit spans a number of seasons, and while there were different backdrops, scenery pieces, costumes and lighting cues to note the change, it was the choreography for the adult chorus and the children’s cast that gave a sense of place. Swirling, blustery arms and billowy jumps mimicked winter’s snow; sprightly lifts and leap frog games welcomed spring; and for summer, the cast, clad in retro bathing costumes, swam and dove through the space, feet kicking imaginary water and arms circling in a series of backstrokes. Two solos also stood out for their choreographic ingenuity. After becoming real, Schwab’s character discovers that she now has hind legs like all other rabbits. Split leaps, long extensions and articulations of the foot, ankle and knee communicated this new reality. As the elder statesman of the nursery playroom, Gilmer’s Skin Horse emanated wisdom and steadfastness, cycling though defined stately motions, slow, precise promenades and an enviable penchée. The adult chorus must also be praised for their speed, stamina and finesse. They were constantly shifting from character to character and costume to costume, and never once looked rushed or flustered.
Velveteen Rabbit’s opening performance had some unison struggles here and there, though I imagine these will get worked out over the run. And there are a couple of scenes that might go on a bit too long. But there was really only one element of the show that didn’t fit for me: the score, or to be more accurate, parts of the score. Nelson set Velveteen Rabbit to music by Benjamin Britten with Geoff Hoyle narrating Williams’ prose. The orchestrations and text worked great together; nothing more was needed. Especially not the intermittent songs that crept in from time to time. And I use the verb ‘creep’ on purpose because they came across as kind of creepy – sung in a wispy, mysterious timbre and hovering between major and minor tonalities. Certainly, it seemed an odd choice for this otherwise heartwarming work.