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The Rain Forest's Rainbow World

February 22, 2001|LYNNE HEFFLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A strikingly marked frog hops across the rain forest floor; a huge millipede goes his many-legged, solitary way; a leafcutter ant lumbers under his heavy green burden; a comical, big-eyed lemur leaps through the air. Rain falls. Through changing patterns of light and mist comes the glow of brilliant tropical flowers and exotic birds. . . .

The stunning visual imagery in the David Taylor Dance Theatre's "Rainforest" has made it one of the company's most popular and family-friendly touring productions since its 1995 premiere in Denver.

The Colorado ballet company will present its magical hommage to the tropical rain forest on March 2 at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, along with a shorter version, "A Children's Rainforest Odyssey," for younger children next Thursday and March 2, and at Caltech's Beckman Auditorium on March 3.

Created by the company's artistic director, choreographer David Taylor; composer Jesse Manno; visual artist George Peters; "light artists" Jill and Dan Neafus; and lighting designer Jacob Welch, "Rainforest" began with a small moment: Taylor saw a picture of one of the Neafus' designs--a shredded paper sculpture illuminated with green light.

"It reminded me of foliage," Taylor said.

Having worked with many artists in the Denver area on multimedia collaborative dance projects, "I called up my favorite ones," and a year later, the resulting 35-minute production was so popular that Taylor and his collaborators turned it into the full-length piece that now tours the country.

This dreamlike journey through the ecosystem of the rain forest, with all its layers of existence, begins with "an almost hypnotic droning sound" and a series of lighting effects.

"The idea is that you're flying above the rain forest," Taylor explained. "Then we see 'floating eyes' peering from the [dark], and then we go into the first black-light section--flying, buzzing and crawling insects."

Female dancers on pointe emerge as the stamens of flowering plants, partnered by male dancers as leafcutter ants, and then "most of the creature costumes [created by Peters] appear. We have a 30-foot boa constrictor, a lemur, two lizards, a poison arrow dart frog, a millipede, a queen leafcutter ant and a turtle."

Dancing birds of paradise follow, then big-winged bats and then an ascent into the forest canopy.

Matching dancers to each creature costume is more challenging than one might think, Taylor said. "We actually did a lot of study for this. We rented National Geographic videos and watched Discovery Channel stuff and really looked at how these creatures moved. And, as strange as it may seem, there are certain personalities with dancers that are more suited to certain creatures than others."

The choreography was another challenge, Taylor said, because of the unusual nature of his subject matter. "I knew it was not going to be a, quote, ballet piece. I knew it had to be contemporary, because you're dealing with so many abstracts and ideas that are not human: They're animal or vegetable. To put it on pointe just didn't work for me." (A few sections feature dancers on their toes; the rest are "all in bare feet.")

After an intermission that is also part of the show--it takes place in half-light, with ambient sounds and creatures reappearing and interacting with audience members--the second half of the ballet is "dedicated to the indigenous Indian people who inhabit the rain forest," Taylor said.

In the finale, the audience discovers the interconnectedness of life in the rain forest.

* "Rainforest," Fred Kavli Theatre, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., March 2 at 7 p.m. $14-$20. (805) 650-9688, (805) 646-8907, (805) 583-8700. "A Children's Rainforest Odyssey," Fred Kavli Theatre, next Thursday at 10 a.m. and noon and March 2 at 10 a.m. $10. (805) 388-4411; Beckman Auditorium, Caltech, 332 S. Michigan Ave., Pasadena on March 3 at 2 p.m. $5-$10. (888) 222-5832, (626) 395-4652.

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