Judging from a description of the upcoming dance-theater piece “Orkestriska’s Box,” you would be forgiven for thinking it’s a surrealist version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame set to music and given a female protagonist.
The work’s influences are varied: turn-of-the-20th-century ballet and grand opera; Gestalt psychology; burlesque theater; the 1951 film The Tales of Hoffmann; a little girl in a tutu; the Folies Bergère; gender stereotyping. Add stop-motion animation and an original score composed for an old-fashioned Porter music box, and the imagery practically gets up and tap dances across the room.
“Orkestriska’s Box,” which premieres in November, is a collaborative production of Burlington’s Tuppence Coloured Ensemble and Thoughtfaucet, and the Porter Music Box Museum of Randolph. Tuppence principal Trish Denton, an actor, dancer, street performer and teacher, conceived and wrote the script, which was initially inspired by a 3-year-old in a tutu dancing inside a miniature puppet theater.
“Seeing that little girl dance just brought up all of these ideas of how we’re raising girls to be ballerinas, and how so much of musical theater relies on these stereotypes of how men and women fall in love,” Denton says. “She made me think about challenging dominant narratives, and specifically this idea of the ‘kept’ woman — the 1950s housewife, or the perfect ballerina.”
The character of Orkestriska — who lives inside a music box and watches the world go by outside her window — was born at that moment, but the story expanded as Denton drew from classical and contemporary inspirations. Other Tuppence members began contributing ideas and talent. Vocalist Jane Beaumont-Snyder and composer Randal Pierce brought classical training to balance Denton’s “crazy art,” she says. As Orkestriska, Beaumont-Snyder will vocalize with an acoustic ensemble and with Pierce’s compositions, transposed onto a copper record and played by a $13,000 Porter music box on loan from the museum.
The show relies heavily on physical acting and characterization to tell the story (words, not so much). Street sequences are narrated by music and populated by puppets made by Meghan Dewald of Burlington; her husband, Gahlord Dewald, is creating stop-motion, mixed-media animation to narrate the dream sequences. The founder of Thoughtfaucet studio, Gahlord Dewald likens his methods to the process for early “South Park” animation.
“What I do is tangible media made of collage and paper cutouts,” he explains. “Our work is much closer to experimental weirdo animation than to Disney or Pixar, because any CGI that is sub-Pixar standards looks really, really bad. Tangible media, on the other hand, usually look charming and organic. “
The dream sequences will be projected directly onto the back of Orkestriska’s music box, representing her only interaction with the real world outside her beautiful prison.
“She’s challenged by what she sees outside of her music box because it shows life being actually lived — unlike her own little world, where she might be on a pedestal, but she’s essentially trapped,” Denton says.
In some ways, it’s an apt metaphor for what the Tuppence Coloured Ensemble is trying to do with this show: break free of real or imagined constraints and offer a new perspective to Burlington theatergoers. The production is the group’s first real opportunity to “test the waters of doing a higher level of work, and to see if getting paid to work as artists is a viable way of making a living here,” Denton says.
“It’s also really important to me that we bring new theater here and contribute to a creative economy in Burlington,” she adds. “We don’t want to just go off to New York to do our work; there are actors and artists right here with amazing skills and creativity that should be used. I feel like, if we’re not finding the outlet we want in the platform that’s already been created, then, OK, let’s build it.”
Of course, creating a new platform for sustainable physical theater in Burlington involves at least a small pot of money for sets, lights and salaries. The ensemble is attempting to raise about $9000 before the production, much of which Denton hopes will come from local sources. Opportunities to participate are spelled out on the production’s website.
“I can write lots of grants to try to get money from national funds like the Rockefeller Foundation, or I can try to build relationships with businesses and individuals right here who will be directly affected by new theater in Burlington,” she says. “We want to make shows that bridge the gap between community and art, and I really believe that new and interdisciplinary art can do that.”
If the Tuppence Coloured Ensemble doesn’t raise the desired amount, though, the show will still go on.
“I love working with all of the resources available to me, whether that’s human imagination or physical materials,” Denton notes. “At this point, I don’t know whether this will be set in the late 1800s or the 1940s, but as long as it retains an antiquated, storybook theme, it could be anything. We’ll just have to see what materials we can get our hands on.”
“Orkestriska’s Box,” November 16, 17 and 18 at the Black Box at Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center, Burlington. Times and admission TBD. www.orkestriskasbox.com