Emerging theatre artists Ella MacDonald and Emma James are spending their summer dealing with death as they present their free all-ages creative movement show The Skeleton Dance at various locations across the Halifax Regional Municipality.
We love the freshness and bluntness that can come with children’s takes on death and believe that we can all benefit from that child-like curiosity for life’s mysteries.
The Skeleton Dance tells the story of two young children processing the news that their great uncle Trout has suddenly passed away. They consider the implications of this in an entertaining, irreverent way, where the audience is privy to their many whimsical theories about death.
In this Q&A with MacDonald and James, we find out more.
This interview has been edited.
Take us beyond the press release and tell us about The Skeleton Dance. What can audiences expect?
When you arrive at The Skeleton Dance, you’ll be greeted by Ella and Emma at their 11 x 13 foam portable dance floor. The show is under 45 minutes long and follows two young sisters following the sudden death of their Great Uncle Trout. The show is packed with funny, campy, dreamy, mysterious, and heartfelt moments.
What was the inspiration for the show?
We were struck by the way that children speak about death with a fearlessness, whimsy and irreverence that would be considered shocking if it came from adults. We are all later conditioned to talk about death in euphemisms, for example, to say that someone ‘passed away’ rather than ‘died.’ We love the freshness and bluntness that can come with children’s takes on death and believe that we can all benefit from that child-like curiosity for life’s mysteries.
Why this particular show now?
As we recover from the pandemic, we wanted to provide a fun activity that can be safely enjoyed outdoors this summer. But we also recognize that through this pandemic, we have all grieved something – if not a loved one, we have suffered a loss of normalcy or important events. Therefore, we wanted to provide some prompts to process this grief and remind audiences that the grieving process can take many forms.
The play deals with death and is intended for all ages. So how do you deal with the subject matter so even the youngest audience members can understand?
To make the show safe and fun for all ages, we use simple language and lots of laughs to help deliver our message. The youngest audience members may not fully understand all of the content but should still be very entertained by the whimsy and interesting physicality used in the show. We are also using audience participation to get young audiences involved in the storytelling to make it feel accessible. Death and dying can be a tough subject, so all of our performances start with a content warning with resources for handling death, and they all finish with a Q&A.
Given its subject matter, what ages do you recommend seeing the show?
We would say it’s ideal for kids ages eight and up but to be enjoyed by all ages, even younger children. The audience can be noisy, move around, and participate in age-appropriate ways.
The play is described as a creative movement show. Can you elaborate on what that means?
Our play uses a lot of creative movement, a contemporary dance form combining movement and artistic expression. It focuses less on structure than other dance forms. In our play, we pull from different styles of movement and make some interesting body shapes and ‘sculptures’ by leaning our weight into each other in interesting ways to shift the play’s universe to a more heightened and less realistic play space.
You are presenting the play in traditional and non-traditional settings, including theatres, parks and other locations. Was that always your intent with the show?
A top priority was to reach as many members of the public as possible with this show, especially after performing arts have been on hiatus for the brunt of the pandemic. We’re hoping to catch some audiences just in the right place at the right time and delight them with a free show, in addition to regular theatre-going audience members. We want attending this show to be easy – it’s okay if you take a break and wander back, it’s okay if a little one cries, it’s okay to leave your cell phone on, and it’s okay to eat, too! Because we aren’t always in performance spaces, fewer “rules” apply.
Why should someone come to see The Skeleton Dance?
Someone should come to see The Skeleton Dance if they would like to be entertained and would like to be challenged about what a play can look like. It can be very movement-heavy, be silly, and it can be right outside in the park. A big hope was to provide some quality and unusual art that we would have loved to have watched when we were young.
The Skeleton Dance runs July 25 through August 27 at Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) locations and beyond. Visit the-skeleton-dance.mailchimpsites.com for more information.