In a ballet called “Panther Dream,” 12-year-old Brennen Johnson of Hanover Township plays a concerned father who warns his son to stay out of the rainforest because he believes it is dangerous and full of evil spirits.
A bit ironically, adult dancer Raphael Cooper takes on the coming-of-age role of Lokuli, the son who — you just know this is going to happen — disobeys dear old dad.
But Lokuli has a good reason to borrow his grandmother’s spear and venture into the woods. His village needs food, and he’s in search of meat.
“It’s not a fairy-princess sort of story,” said Wendy Weir Henry from Body Language Studio in Kingston, who choreographed the piece. “It’s not all tutus or tulle — not that we don’t like that, too.
“This has very strong male characters.”
Some of the small boys who attend Graham Academy, a school for special-needs children in Luzerne, latched onto that idea right away. They also latched onto Cooper’s hand during a recent performance, forming a chain to follow along on part of his adventure.
A few little girls, meanwhile, got up and danced with female dancers who portrayed an antelope-like duiker and other African creatures.
“We try to give them new experiences,” said Paul Ouellette, chief operating officer of the school, who was pleased to see the interaction between the students and the performers Henry had brought to the school gym.
As for the children, they seemed to love it.
“We got some remarkable thank-you cards from the Graham students,” Henry said later. “They were very dear, and they showed panthers and elephants, panthers and elephants.”
That proved the elephant that lumbered through the Graham Academy gym — on four human feet, if you looked closely — was a popular part of the interactive ballet, along with the panther, who was portrayed with lithe grace by Henry’s daughter, Lauren Henry.
Creative movement is a way to break down barriers, said Wendy Henry, who has staged “Panther Dream” performances for adults and adolescents who are recovering from substance abuse as well as autistic children.
“It’s really freeing to become immersed in the story and the music and the movement,” Henry said, adding that the younger the audience members are, the more apt they are to get up and dance with the performers.
“Some of the adults are more reticent,” she said. “It’s kind of like when you get to a pool. Some people jump right in, some want to wade in slowly, and some just want to wet their feet.”
Whether or not members of the audience want to join in the dance, they’re likely to want to use the tambourines and maracas the dancers pass out at the end of the performance.
“When we pass out the percussion instruments,” Henry said, “things really start to happen.”
While the show does seem to help some at-risk or special-needs audience members make a connection, Henry believes general audiences will enjoy it as well. There are tentative plans for it to be staged in an outdoor setting when the weather is warmer.