As choreographer Melissa Thodos recalled recently, it was just about two years ago — as soon as the curtain came down on the Thodos Dance Chicago company’s premiere of “The White City: Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893,” a one-act multi-media story ballet — that the seeds for “Light in the Dark: The Story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan,” her next collaboration with Ann Reinking, the fabled Fosse dancer and Broadway choreographer, were planted.
As Thodos explained: “It was our closing night dinner, and we were all sitting there celebrating — Ann, and Gary Cryst [the former Joffrey Ballet star who served as acting coach on the work], and Bruce Wolosoff [the composer] and the designers. We started wondering in a think-tank sort of way about what we might do next. And that’s when Gary just burst out with ‘How about Helen Keller?’ ”
“The room got silent. But six months later we started working on the idea. I love the fact that my company celebrates the American voice in dance, and here we had another iconic, and immensely appealing American story — one that I first learned about in middle school.”
It was through “The Miracle Worker” — William Gibson’s drama (a teleplay in 1957, a Broadway play two years later, and then a 1962 film starring Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft) — that many first became aware of Helen Keller (1880-1968) and her fiercely determined teacher, Anne Sullivan. But this dance piece is no copy of that work.
Keller, a child who became deaf and blind at the age of 19 months, was taught to communicate by Sullivan, who was herself visually impaired, and just 20 years old when she arrived at the Keller home in an Alabama town to serve as Helen’s governess and teacher. Helen would become a world-famous writer, political activist and lecturer, as well as the first deaf-blind person to earn a college degree. Sullivan, who found a way to break through the girl’s isolation and give her a means of communicating, would go on to serve as her companion for nearly half a century.
“ ‘A Light in the Dark’ really tells an intimate family story,” said Thodos. “And unlike in the play, we take time to develop Anne Sullivan’s story, as well as Helen’s. We show how her drive and passion to connect with Helen, who was seven when they first met, was in part a response to the death of her younger brother in a terrible orphanage of the time. She thought Helen might also be headed to an institution if she failed to get through to her. The Kellers were a staunch, upper class Southern family who did not want the chaos Helen brought into the home. Luckily, Helen’s mother sensed how smart she was, reached out to the Perkins School for the Blind in Masssachusetts, and found Sullivan.”
As with “White City,” Thodos and Reinking did copious research, much of which they passed to the dancers.
“These dancers also learned the American Manual Alphabet that Anne taught Helen, and we’ve embellished and expanded on that alphabet for dance purposes,” said Thodos, who joined Reinking last spring for a visit to the Helen Keller National Center for the Deaf-Blind on Long Island, where they observed how these people moved and learned to navigate.
The one-act “A Light in the Dark” will feature 10 dancers playing the roles of Helen (with Jessica Miller Tomlinson alternating with Caitlin Cucchiara); Anne (with Alissa Tollefson alternating with Annie Deutz); Helen’s mother, father and brother; Anne’s brother; a maid, and Anne’s students at the school for the blind where she taught before becoming Helen’s teacher.
Along with co-choreographers Thodos and Reinking, and theatrical coach Chryst, the same creative team behind “White City” has returned to work on “A Light in the Dark,” including Wolosoff (who spent many hours in the rehearsal studio creating the original score), Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Christopher Kai Olsen (who will create a behind-the-scenes film about the piece), and designers Nathan Tomlinson (lights) and Nathan Rohrer (costumes).
“I think what gave me the idea for this work was watching that wonderful dancer, Jessica Tomlinson, in ‘White City,’ where she was imprisoned in a black box by her crazy captor,” said Chryst. “There was just an association with the way Helen Keller was trapped until Anne opened her up to communication. And guess what? Helen and Anne actually visited the 1893 Columbian Exposition, with Alexander Graham Bell as their guide.”
NOTE: Also on the Thodos Dance Chicago program will be: “Rest is Not Always Possible,” a new work by San Francisco-based choreographer KT Nelson; “Subtle Passages,” another world premiere by Thodos; and “Lullaby,” by Brian Enos.
Thodos Dance Chicago and the Chicago Lighthouse for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired have partnered to build awareness within Chicago’s disabled community for “A Light in the Dark.” Specific initiatives include: Pre-show Touch Tours for patrons who are blind or with low vision (Feb. 16, starting at 6:30 p.m. at the North Shore Center and March 3, starting at 12:30 p.m. at the Harris Theater); and Audio Description, which uses a real-time two-channel headset, also available for patrons at those performances. The Chicago Lighthouse is printing complimentary Braille and large print programs for both engagements. Call (312) 266-6255 for information.