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Dancing with fire

The Arts for Autism Gala tells the story of autistic experience through art, dance, music, and flaming fowl

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SHE’S ON FIRE :  A collaboration between the Central Coast Autism Spectrum and Ballet Theatre SLO, the Arts for Autism Gala is three gorgeous ballets and an art show. The headliner is Gilbert Reed’s The Firebird. - PHOTO BY BARRY GOYETTE
  • PHOTO BY BARRY GOYETTE
  • SHE’S ON FIRE : A collaboration between the Central Coast Autism Spectrum and Ballet Theatre SLO, the Arts for Autism Gala is three gorgeous ballets and an art show. The headliner is Gilbert Reed’s The Firebird.

Slavic folklore depicts the firebird, a flaming, feathered thing, as both a blessing and a curse to its captor. The bird’s plumage is like glowing embers; one feather can light up a room. In Russian stories, the bird is a coveted, wondrous creature, the object of heroes’ quests. Strangely, the bird is often blamed for the hero’s difficulties, eventually perceived as a bringer of doom. Igor Stravinsky, inspired by the mythological, chronically misunderstood creature, penned a famous ballet of the same name.

Perhaps by coincidence—but likely not—Stravinsky’s The Firebird was selected as the headlining ballet in a show benefiting a fascinating, chronically misunderstood condition. The Arts for Autism Gala, a collaborative effort between Ballet Theatre San Luis Obispo and the Central Coast Autism Spectrum Center, aims to promote understanding between autistic and “neuro-typical” members of the community. Held at the Cal Poly Performing Arts Center, the ambitious new weekend event includes three ballets, a musical performance, and an art show and sale.

In addition to The Firebird, the gala’s anchor ballet, two daring new homespun ballets will debut: Sketches on the Spectrum, by professional choreographer Lisa Deyo, and Simple Gifts, set to Appalachian folk music, by Ballet Theatre SLO’s Artistic Director Theresa Slobodnik.

It’s a complex program, involving several major players in the artistic and autistic community. But the goal is simple: to tell the story of autistic experience through art.

Appropriately, Deyo’s Sketches on the Spectrum opens to an ostinato by autistic cellist—and Theresa Slobodnik’s son—Aksel Slobodnik. The opening ostinato gives way to a looped conversation, emphasizing the autistic tendency toward repetition.

“Say, ‘I love you,’” an adult voice admonishes in the sudden silence.

“Okay. I love you,” a childish voice echoes, again and again and again.

The dancers move in unison to the cadence of the words, then break away into their own frantic movements. (Greg Sample, visiting from Las Vegas, dances the autistic character; Slobodnik and the Civic Ballet’s Drew Silvaggio also lend their talents to the piece.) The repeated syllables push the limits of the audience’s patience the way autistic children do their parents. Soon the words are mere sounds. Then, at last—we hope—an invisible line is crossed. What was, one minute ago, an annoyance, becomes strangely comforting. We accept and allow the verbal repetition. The I-love-you loop reaches an eventual end, and Rosemary Clooney’s soothing “Hey there” takes over.

Sketches, said choreographer Deyo, is “told from the point of view of people who interact with, fall in love with, or pass by an autistic person.”

But the biggest draw of the event is still the glorious, decadent ballet The Firebird, choreographed by Gilbert Reed. The ballet tells the story of Prince Ivan, danced by returning local Wes Krukow, who is hunting in the forest when he crosses into the territory of the monster king Kastchei (Blair London), where he discovers the beautiful, glowing bird, which he is determined to catch. Michelle McLaughlin portrays the firebird, who buys her freedom with one of her magic feathers and the promise to come to his aid whenever he’s in danger.

- THE ART OF PYROTECHNIC PLUMAGE : - The Arts for Autism Gala takes place March 18 to 20 at the Cal Poly PAC. An art exhibition and sale in the Rossi Grand Lobby will coincide with performances of The Firebird, Simple Gifts, and Sketches on a Spectrum. For showtimes, more information, or for tickets, visit pacslo.org or call 756-2787. -
  • THE ART OF PYROTECHNIC PLUMAGE : The Arts for Autism Gala takes place March 18 to 20 at the Cal Poly PAC. An art exhibition and sale in the Rossi Grand Lobby will coincide with performances of The Firebird, Simple Gifts, and Sketches on a Spectrum. For showtimes, more information, or for tickets, visit pacslo.org or call 756-2787.

Prince Ivan then spies Princess Tsarevna (Brianna Thompson), with whom he immediately falls in love. Tsarevna warns Ivan that Kastchei’s army of enslaved creatures—transformed into monsters—are stalking him. Kastchei materializes out of darkness. The monsters begin to close in. Tsarevna’s entreaty to spare Ivan is not enough; he must summon the firebird to intercede.

The glittering ballet is the crown jewel in a gala aiming to remove the myth and misunderstanding surrounding autism.

“Most people who support [the Central Coast Autism Spectrum Center] are parents with autistic kids,” center director Juli Miller noted.

She hopes to expand this support base by bringing autism and the work of autistic artists into the public sphere. About a third of the artists exhibiting work in the gala’s art show are autistic, she estimated.

When Slobodnik originally met with Miller, the two envisioned a large-scale event akin to a fair. Miller, who dances at the Academy of Dance, and Slobodnik, who has a son on the autism spectrum, hope to make the event an annual affair.

The overwhelming sentiment among gala organizers is that autism isn’t so much a problem in need of treatment as a unique way of viewing the world, which must be appreciated and understood.

The autistic condition, said Deyo, “is not lessened. It’s not damaged. … If you’re an autistic person, your life is just as full and rich—if not more full and rich—than anyone else’s. There’s always something beautiful to be found. The colors they see may be more vibrant. Everything’s got two sides.” 

Arts Editor Anna Weltner sees blue as what you see as red. Contact her at aweltner@newtimesslo.com.

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