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Friday, 6 September 2013

A Light in the Dark: A Ballet & Documentary Review

“A Light in the Dark” by Chicago-based choreographers Ann Reinking and Melissa Thodos is a ballet that tells the story of Helen Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan. When filmmaker (and CRF guest) CK Olsen initially approached me about viewing both his filming of the performance and his accompanying short documentary I’ll admit to having been somewhat puzzled by the concept. How would one use an incredibly sensory-driven medium like ballet to tell the story of someone who was both blind and deaf?
Reinking and Thodos not only proved that it could be done but, were able to offer up a beautiful, stirring new take on a classic slice of real-life Americana. This is more than just a dance piece but, a very human drama. At times, the movements of the dancers were so articulate and full of expression that I almost felt as though I were in the same room with the real-life Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan.

While audiences will likely most remember Jessica Miller Tomlinson’s portrayal of Helen Keller, Alissa Tollefson’s performance as Anne Sullivan is quite arguably even more compelling. She was able to dig deep and capture the raw motivation of a teacher with her own hard backstory who wanted nothing more than to find a way to help her student make a breakthrough.
Olsen’s documentary “Shine: Making ‘A Light in the Dark’” will prove to be great preparatory viewing for those that see the ballet and I’m glad that I watched it first. In addition to the standard bases that “making-of” documentaries touch, I was impressed by the extensive background research conducted by the members of the dance company. During a trip to the Helen Keller Foundation, a worker there (who was also deaf and blind) gives a recount of attending a performance of “The Lion King” that is all but guaranteed to put a lump in your throat.  

“Shine: Making ‘A Light in the Dark’” and “A Light in the Dark” both premiere on PBS-WTTW, Channel 11, on Sunday, September 8. For further information, please consult the Thodos Dance Chicago website or follow CK Olsen on Twitter.

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