Harvard Ballet Company adapts "The Giver"

Lois Lowry's beloved novel takes shape in a literary ballet directed, choreographed and performed by students. 

By Anita Lo '16

Adapting works of art to another medium has traditionally presented a challenge: How might a novel become a movie, or a poem a painting? This, of course, draws on the practice that perhaps art is most concerned with: How might an emotion become a song, or a memory a book? How, in other words, do we give the world a version of what we see?

Harvard Ballet Company performs "The Giver."The Harvard Ballet Company will present The Giver, a story told by dances interspersed with original film clips, based on Lois Lowry’s young-adult novel The Giver, which was published in 1993 and won the presitigous Newberry Medal in 1994. The production will also feature musical and visual works by Sam Wu ’17, Matthew Wu ’17, Randa Melhem ’16 and Madison Dildine ’16.

Director and choreographer Catherine Qin ’17 said The Giver came up when HBC planned its season. “Maybe it was because of many of our childhood memories of reading the story, or the opportunity that [the story] offered for deeper emotional reflection and expression,” she said, “but suddenly, we all knew that this had to be the one.”

Lowry’s beloved novel The Giver presents a dystopian world in which “sameness” prevails: Jonas (the protagonist) lives in a community that knows no color, emotion or choice. It is only after Jonas is chosen to bear the memories of joy, pain, death and love – imparted to him by the community’s Giver – that he is able to look upon his community with fresh eyes and feel compelled to give back.

The ballet’s choreographers, dancers and directors clearly took the novel to heart, whether they read it for pleasure as children or as college dancers preparing to communicate Jonas’ experiences to an audience.

"The Giver" posterQin even incorporated the text into the dance: “When I was choreographing my piece, centered on the idea of seeing color in the world, I tried to impart this idea to my dancers from the very start of the rehearsal process when I first described my vision for the piece. And throughout the rehearsal process, I would continually point out moments of the choreography that were meant to evoke the sensations and emotions that one might feel if she were to suddenly experience color for the first time.”

Lilly Riveron ’17, who co-directs the production, added that other choreographers have embraced the importance of converting the novel’s words to movement. “I’ve heard student choreographer Jacqueline Flood describing to her dancers the precision of movement they need to reflect the Community’s emphasis on “precision of language” in the book,” said Riveron. “In the second dance of the show, which represents the Ceremony of Twelve in which every member of Jonas’ Community is assigned a lifelong job, student choreographer Angela Ma incorporated pantomime-like movements and focuses on developing each dancer’s idiosyncratic role in the piece.”

The dancers attest to the thoughtful choreography as well. “There is so much depth to Lois Lowry's characters, and this prompted me to think about my performance beyond just rehearsal hours and time onstage,” said dancer Gaby Czarniak ’17. “Every little detail counts. For example, there is a section of our piece in which the Receiver starts walking backwards and the Giver then follows.  Although it's ‘just walking,' Miriam [Huettner ‘17], Sophie [Carroll ‘17] and I have spent hours working on getting this just right.”

Watching the dancers rehearse, I was drawn in by the duet and chase between the Giver and the Receiver. I was amused by the spread of bright blue, green, yellow, purple and red socks in one dance – is this Jonas’ introduction to color?

I left the rehearsal excited and energized. The dancers have worked to understand how to receive unknown emotions anew, and then, with fresh eyes, how to give those colors, hopes and fears back to the audience.

The Harvard Ballet Company production of The Giver will run Dec. 4-6 in Farkas Hall. Tickets are $12 for general admission and $8 for students.