Our attention was drawn to a familiar but larger-than-life shape as we entered the aging Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Theatre on the evening of Saturday, October 6th. From behind the towering red curtain whispered the shadow of a ballerina, cast into enormity on the back wall. This glimpse into the secret and sacred scene of a dancer in the wings before her curtain call excited me in the way that only the magic of ballet can.
Ballet Ariel opened its 20th season this weekend with The Tale of Molly Brown, a three act ballet following the life and times of renowned Denver socialite and activist, Margaret Tobin Brown. In brilliant collaboration with the Molly Brown House Museum, each act was preceded by a brief narration by an actress portraying Molly Brown, highlighting the story’s historical accuracy.
Act I, based in Leadville, Colorado, just after the end of the Civil War, depicts the introduction of Margaret Tobin and John Joseph “J.J.” Brown (who married for love, and not for money) and then the jubilant discovery of gold and the Browns’ subsequent millionaire status. The Gossamer Winds Quintet provided delightful live accompaniment to each of the three acts, the first of which featured the works of Edward MacDowell and included the American classic Yankee Doodle. The pioneer anthem served as a charming theme for the scene celebrating the gold’s discovery. The simple set on the stage throughout the performance incorporated historical artifacts, as era-accurate photographs were projected onto the upstage scrim curtain. The women were costumed in western Victorian dresses, and the men in jeans and tucked-in button-ups, a surprising but satisfying choice. Stylized movements in this act featured iconic square dancing chassés, skipping, and flexed-foot jumps that embody the can-do spirit of the American West.
Act II focuses on Molly’s life in Denver, with tributes to her involvement in Denver’s social scene, her amiable split from her aging husband J.J., and her activism for women’s suffrage and other political efforts. In an articulately choreographed parlor scene, a gaggle of high society women gossip behind fans as Molly and a reporter follow them around the stage. The popular music of George Gershwin and Scott Joplin help to project the changing pace of life for the country at that time, and especially for Molly Brown. Sharp movements and a fiery rhythm, while uncharacteristic of classical ballet, effectively illustrate the separation between Molly and her husband. During a scene representative of her work for women’s suffrage, bold staging formations and simple, symbolic movements rally the audience like potent rhetoric.
Apart from its final scene, Act III emerges in high contrast with the cheery and excitable first two acts. A haunting and memorable vignette highlights the diverse training of the cast during the scene in which Molly and others escape the sinking Titanic. The ballet takes a dark and modern shift, the stage lights low and the dancers wrapped in dark cloaks. Demonstrating her dedication to service of others, Molly helps a series of other female dancers step over the edge of an invisible boat, shivering in the bitter cold of the night. The confined area in the center of the stage steadily fills with survivors and becomes more and more crowded. Once full, the dancers turn their backs to the audience. Facing upstage in a huddled mass aboard their life raft they sway side to side, evoking the imagery of waves rocking their boat. This scene is performed in complete silence, leaving only the creaking of the ancient wooden stage. Out of this darkness comes the cream costumed ragtime finale, once more reminding the audience of Molly’s ability to brighten a room and making every Denver native proud to live in a city shaped by this unsinkable woman’s legacy.
Maggie Ramseur is a long time dancer and teacher in the southwest Denver area. Her background includes training in ballet, tap, jazz, contemporary, and hip hop dance styles. As a member of the CU Buff Gold Dance Team for the 2017 season, she performed and competed on a national stage. In addition to a long history with competition dance, Maggie has also studied dance in pop culture and the history of modern dance under the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She strives to remain active as a student, a teacher, and an advocate for dance in the community.