"Baba Yaga" is based on a Russian folk tale.
In Baba Yaga: a Portrait of the Wickedest Witch, Kanopy Dance uses modern dance, ballet, puppetry, masks, film and lavish costumes to explore the legend of the forest-dwelling witch who is a prominent character in Slavic folklore and the center of the Russian folk tale “Vasilisa the Beautiful.”
The show, which runs through Feb. 19 at Overture Center’s Promenade Hall, is clearly the product of extensive research by company co-directors Lisa Thurrell and Robert E. Cleary.
At the center of Baba Yaga is a kind and earnest girl Vasilisa (Olivia Rivard, an excellent dancer who does more acting than dancing in this show). She lives with her awful stepsisters (Cleary and Carlos Armancanqui, in drag), who tease and torment her, sending her into the spooky forest to obtain a replacement for the light that they have intentionally extinguished. She is accompanied on this hero’s journey by a magical doll — a gift from her dead mother. Along the way, she encounters graceful sprites, majestic trees, menacing minions, a spinning hut on chicken legs and Baba Yaga herself (played with relish by Thurrell). Baba Yaga assigns Vasilisa impossible household tasks, threatening to boil her in a cauldron before eating her up if she can’t manage to complete them. Vasilisa achieves them all with the help of her doll and is able to bring back the light in the form of a glowing skull, which traumatizes her vile stepsisters.
Thurrell, Cleary, Kerry Parker, Elyse Snider and Kiro Kopulos each contributed sections of choreography to the production, and most of the choreographers collaborated on the final scene, which ends in an Eastern European-style Benny Hill chase scene with the characters running around the theater and across the stage.
Some portions of the show are quite magical, like the scene choreographed by Thurrell, depicting Vasilisa’s arrival at Baba Yaga’s hut. A fence of human bones is represented by skull torches placed on the ground and projected on a screen behind the action. The cutest hut to ever be perched on chicken legs is brought to life by Maia Sauer (sporting a clever costume by designer David Quinn). Vasilisa is ushered through the forest by the Mystic Spirit (Brienna Tipler, who is consistently lovely) and the effect is otherworldly and new.
Other scenes feel unnecessarily protracted. The exchange of the light from Baba Yaga to Vasilisa goes on too long. However, on opening night there were more children in the audience than usual, and they didn’t seem to be squirming.
Dee King plays the role of narrator with gusto and charm. He’s also in charge of manipulating the magic doll, which he fully commits to, but I’m wondering if the doll would have been more effective as a larger marionette. At times, the doll seems more Cabbage Patch doll than magic doll, and her small movements get lost in all of the action swirling around her.
I didn’t love everything about Baba Yaga, but I appreciate Kanopy’s search for unusual material. And certain elements of the show are unforgettable — including a trio of elaborately festooned tree dancers in a trippy procession through the woods.