When it comes to fairy tales, Gabriel Chajnik thinks it’s the journey that counts, not the happy ending forever. “Have you ever traveled somewhere to see or meet someone, or something that’s really important to you, and you don’t really care what kind of obstacles you’re going to encounter along the way?” he asks. This, he says, is the central message of his latest production, “The Lost Princess of Oz”.
The world premiere of the multimedia dance musical choreographed by Axelrod Contemporary Ballet Theater founder and director Chajnik runs August 19-21 and August 26-28 at Monmouth University’s Pollak Theater in West Long Branch, in a co-production with the Axelrod Performing Arts Center.
The story, told through the libretto by Shannon Hill, is based on the 11th book in the “Oz” series by L. Frank Baum. It follows the mysterious disappearance of Princess Ozma and the adventures of her closest friends – including Glinda the Good Witch, the Wizard of Oz and Dorothy – on their journey to find the fairy princess and restore the missing magic to Emerald City.
Chajnik’s AXCBT is Monmouth County’s premier professional ballet company. It was founded in 2018 as a program of the Axelrod Performing Arts Center in Deal Park. The alliance gives the ballet theater access to Axelrod PAC support staff and resources, from grant writers to set builders, prop makers and lighting designers. “I’m in the middle of a running, well-oiled machine,” he says, “and as a dance company, we’re very lucky to be in this relationship. I have so many people supporting me!
On the phone, Chajnik speaks with a discreet and cultured Argentinian accent. Like Baum, he is a gifted storyteller. It comes naturally to him. He says growing up in Argentina fostered an early appreciation of fantasy and children’s literature. His sixth-grade reading program included Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince.”
The idea for the dance musical came about in 2019 while he was programming the 2020 season with Axelrod PAC artistic director Andrew DePrisco. “Andrew always sparks ideas,” says Chajnik. “But then, of course, the pandemic happened,” and the lineup was scrapped.
The new production marks the company’s official return to the 95-minute musical ballet. Chajnik takes the report in stride. He emerged from the pandemic with optimism and he is ready to welcome the public back. “It’s a great time to bring it to life now, to bring some light to our audience. Expect a lot of comedy and fun.
Chajnik’s choreographic currents mix genres. He does this by using the classical vocabulary of classical dance and by mixing modern and contemporary techniques such as tap and hip-hop. His company acts as a laboratory for refining his voice and experimenting with new movements.
“Iconography is very important in the creative process of dance,” he says of the rich, lyrical and complex dance movement at the heart of his choreography. “For this piece, which is a narrative piece, I created the language of movement from the music. For me, music is the queen.
Composer Chris Becker’s original score, inspired by Appalachian music, created an imaginative and dynamic baseline. “The music is phenomenal,” says Chajnik. “It’s bluegrass, mixing all these beats together.”
The orchestration includes banjo, violins, strings, keyboards, xylophone and vibraphone, among other instruments. Chajnik provided Becker with his choreographic ideas for each magical character in Oz: stories, descriptions, music colors, tempo and dynamics.
Another key point of direction were the vivid pen-and-ink drawings by Baum’s longtime book illustrator John R. Neill. Chajnik distilled Neill’s illustrations into dance moves to capture the DNA of each character, no matter how insignificant the role. For example, Chajnik cast the Patchwork Girl, a magical rag doll, as the story’s “dancer and entertainer”. “I said to Chris, ‘The Patchwork Girl has a lot of momentum and a lot of rhythm, so his phrasing isn’t a square phrasing. He has five-phrases, or phrases he goes in a 3/ 4 or in a 6/7. It’s very complicated music.”
Chajnik invited local artists for the singing cameo roles of Billina the Yellow Hen and Baum; they will be played, respectively, by Reagan Richards and Gordon Brown of Shore-based country-rock band Williams Honor. Billina’s dance move was inspired by Neill’s illustration of her adrift at sea in a floating chicken coop after a storm. “That image for me was super important for the fact that all of these characters have a narrative and have a way of moving. So imagine a talking hen and you can imagine how this dancer will move. I don’t ignore it. I am very literal.
In addition to collaborating with local talent, Chajnik frequently calls on seasoned artists to develop the choreographic styles of his dancers and expose his company to a wider range of experiences. For this production, he enlisted his close friend, Andrew Black, an eminent tap choreographer and teacher at Steps on Broadway in Manhattan. “I called Andrew and said, ‘Would you like to come? I really want Ojo the Unlucky (a Munchkin) and Jellia Jamb (Ozma’s maid) to be tappers. So Andrew came over and started tap dancing for them, and it’s so beautiful!
Another character – Tik-Tok, a magical copper man with clock parts – is a hip-hop dancer.
Chajnik’s voice as a choreographer and director has been shaped by his experience as a professional dancer. The fundamentals were learned very early. His mother enrolled him in the ballet academy of Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires at a young age where he trained and studied as a classical dancer.
He calls it “a stroke of luck” to have met Héctor Zaraspe, a Juilliard faculty dance instructor who was also a private trainer to Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn. Zaraspe became his mentor and he was accepted into the dance department at Juilliard on a full scholarship.
“That’s where I discovered the pillars of modern dance: Martha Graham, Paul Taylor and José Limón,” he says of his Juilliard years. “I was introduced to these three amazing wonderful techniques, the foundation of all modern dance here in America and around the world.”
He was particularly drawn to Taylor, whose diverse and experimental style created iconic roles for Merce Cunningham, George Balanchine and Martha Graham. He cites one of Taylor’s masterpieces, “Cloven Kingdom,” as a career highlight because it represented an opportunity “to be able to really learn your technique and just be able to dance with the dynamics of a such a powerful work”.
Modern dance masters taught her the vocabulary needed to change the dance landscape. It has become a trademark of his style. “I keep changing my point of focus,” he says, likening it to studying a work of art from different angles and perspectives in order to unlock new meanings. “I keep changing and pivoting, and that way I can really create a new language.”
Her ultimate goal is to create a movement that challenges her dancers while inspiring her audience. “What it is,” he says, “is basically observing the dancer and allowing the dancer to be able to open up to the music.”
Chajnik continued her studies in Colorado at the David Taylor Dance Theater, dancing classical and modern works. His New Jersey chapter began at American Repertory Ballet, where he worked and danced with pioneers such as Septime Webre and Graham Lustig.
New Jersey loves Chajnik and Chajnik loves New Jersey because it’s the place where he shares a deep respect for dance with colleagues such as Jess Levy, founding CEO of the Axelrod PAC, and Elise Feldman, president of the ballet theater board. “Elise and I think the same way,” says Chajnik. “He is a person who understands the power of dance.”
Chajnik’s future goals for AXCBT are closely aligned with Axelrod PAC’s board core values of promoting education, community and inclusion.
“They understand what dance can do to a child’s mind, what the language of dance can say, and how it can say so much without even speaking.”
For more information, visit axelrodartscenter.com/the-lost-princess-of-oz.
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