We chatted to Jenna Lee, the Choreographer and Director for Puss in In Boots, before it heads to Harrogate Theatre at the end of May. Northern Ballet's work is always excellent and it was wonderful to hear more about this brilliant family show coming to our town.
THU 31 - FRI 31 MAY
Full interview below:
1) How did you become involved with Northern Ballet in creating a new ballet of Puss in Boots?
In 2016 I had a chance meeting with Artistic Director of Children’s Ballets, Daniel De Andrade, when I attended a workshop about the The Clore Leadership Programme. Dan was a guest speaker at the event, talking about his experience of being a Dance Fellow on the programme and his work with Northern Ballet. A few years later, Dan saw an opportunity for us to work together on this children’s ballet.
2) What is it about the story of Puss in Boots that inspired you?
This classic French tale, written back in 1698 by Charles Perrault, has been adapted for plays, pantomimes, TV series and even for a film, when Puss in Boots found renewed fame in 2011 through his starring role in Shrek. Although Puss in Boots makes a brief appearance in the final act of the ballet Sleeping Beauty, it’s not a story that has been reimagined for dance very much. Therefore it seemed like a really great title to create a ballet on. This timeless story about the friendship between human and animal has lots of scope for mission, obstacles and adventure! I’ve tried to stay true to the ideas of the classic tale but with plenty of new laughs for the whole family. My adapted scenario has some lovely morals for young children; rely on your abilities, believe in yourself, and be the creator of your own luck.
3) How difficult is it creating a new ballet?
It’s a lengthy process! Like with any new ballet, the preparation outside the studio is just as important as the steps you create inside the studio. Great narrative ballets are given life by the process of storytelling. My role of choreographer is to provide a strong structure and storyline that transports the audience. I wrote the narrative alongside Artistic Director Daniel De Andrade, and he helped me understand the overall vision that Northern Ballet has for their children’s ballets, which have run so successfully for the past six years. Good harmony between the music, movement, costumes and lighting design is vital so the ballet can tell the story clearly. You need a really good creative team that enjoys collaborating. A new ballet is not only about the steps!
4) Is this your first time doing choreography specifically for children?
Up until a couple of years ago, the process of storytelling and creating work for children was new to me, but then I was commissioned by London Children’s Ballet to create two full-length narrative ballets for them: Snow White and Little Lord Fauntleroy. However, the target audience for this ballet is much younger, so I’ve had to think of different ways to engage the children. I’ve used lots of fun visual objects that they can relate to, that run alongside the choreography, for example the giant ball of wool that Puss in Boots and Penelope Purr play with!
5) What is your favourite part about creating a ballet for children?
My aim was to create a top-tier ballet for a very young audience and to engage them with this much-loved story. As they are the main critics, my favourite part about creating a ballet for children is hearing their reactions during the show and opinions afterwards. In some ways children are a more challenging audience, as they ask so many questions! I hope that Puss in Boots is a mesmerising introduction to the world of ballet and theatre and that it makes enough of an impression that they want to come back again.
6) What will children most enjoy about this production?
I hope they will enjoy the variety of dance genres in this production. It’s a jam-packed 40 minutes full of contrasting dance styles, not only ballet! Jitterbug, Swing, Lindy, and Boogie-Woogie inspired the movement vocabulary and musical style for the cats’ street party scene. These social dances from the 1940s and 50s are filled with impressive tricks and lifts, so I hope that the children will love the fun atmosphere in this scene, that also refers to Disney’s The Aristocats. The film’s group of jazz-playing alley cats also inspired the costumes.
7) Can you tell us a little about the costumes audiences will see?
You can expect a colourful showcase of costumes that have bright, bold, eye-popping designs. Costumes are such an integral part of the performance, as they help to convey information about the characters, even before the dancer takes their first step on stage. With children’s theatre allowing for more imaginative freedom, we used a variety of fabrics and fur to animalise the dancers, evoking a cartoon-like quality. The costumes also have some lovely detailing. For example, a bespoke emblem was designed for the cloak worn by Puss in Boots, with a coat of arms depicting cats and a motto that reads “don't touch the cat without gloves!"
8) Can you tell us a bit about how the set looks?
The ballet is set in a fairytale village scene, with the palace in the background. The set designer Ali Allen needed to create an adaptable set, as we travel to multiple places in the story. The scenic elements for the market, cats’ den, palace gardens and palace interior actually happen with very little scene changes, as clever pieces of set have been created that are multi-purpose. My favourite piece is the palace garden fountain that is transformed into the palace throne. I also love the cat basket, a wooden pet carrier that Puss first appears from. These enchanting designs for Puss in Boots really run parallel with the costume designs and hopefully will capture the imaginations of our young audience.
9) Why do you think it is important to introduce young children and their families to the world of ballet and theatre?
Theatre is a wonderful context for learning and thinking about the world, no matter what age you are. It fires the imagination and gives children the skills and the creativity necessary to tackle life. An important part of children’s theatre is that it’s shared, made for adults and children of all ages, and Northern Ballet’s sell-out children’s productions do just that! Theatre feeds the heart and nourishes the soul.