Jewish Themes Abound In New ‘The Wild Rumpus’ Ballet

The classic children’s book Where the Wild Things Are doesn’t feature an overabundance of action but for dancer and choreographer Hannah MacKenzie-Margulies, that only added to the challenge of creating a ballet centered around the book.

“It very much starts with pulling out the narrative that’s there and the moments that feel – either because of the illustration or the text, that feel resonant for dance,” she said. “I can sort of see how this would translate to the stage.”

MacKenzie-Margulies was selected to choreograph Ballet Co.Laboratory’s new ballet, The Wild Rumpus, which explores the journey to understand the various bubbling emotions inside all of us. This original ballet created by Ballet Co.Laboratory’s 2023 Laboratory II Emerging Choreographer Hannah MacKenzie-Margulies will be performed by the upper-level students of The School of Ballet Co.Laboratory at St. Paul’s Park Square Theatre on March 11-12. The dancers range in age from 8 to 22. 

MacKenzie-Margulies said the ballet is an adaptation of the book, so there is some augmenting of the story, in part to create enough characters to fill out the show. But this adaptation is not the first to take inspiration from the famous book.

“I took some inspiration from other adaptations; the Washington Ballet did a version in collaboration with [author] Maurice Sendak before he died,” she said. “And then reading more about the background of the book and where some of his inspiration came from.”

Sendak had written that the idea for the wild things came from his Yiddish-speaking immigrant aunts and uncles. The beginning scene, MacKenzie-Margulies said, is at a shiva. The family characters met in that moment are met again later in the show through tricks of costuming. 

MacKenzie-Margulies said the operating premise that the characters are Jewish, as a Jew herself, is interesting to her.

“So many of the classic ballets, they come out of these European court institutions, which aren’t overtly Christian, but … it’s kind of there in the way that Christianity is everywhere,” she said.

One of the other choices that MacKenzie-Margulies made was with the music. She said she had “pretty much” full control of the music for the show, and because it’s education, she didn’t have to worry about licensing, which she said is unusual. The show will feature selections ranging from traditional Jewish klezmer tunes to a touch of 60s-style surf rock, which are usually not the standard choices for a ballet.

“Part of the goal of this production and the value of the series that Ballet Co.laboratory does is making ballet more relevant to a contemporary audience,” MacKenzie-Margulies said. “And I think music can play a big role in that. Not that I think classical music is completely obsolete, but just that most younger audiences, I think, don’t always connect with it in the same way that an older audience might.”

The end result is building a narrative through the music, whether through a score from one composer, or works from a diverse set of musicians.

“I picked a piece of Shostakovich here, my friends who play in the West Philadelphia Orchestra Balkan klezmer band there,” and cobble it together into something that felt cohesive and helped tell the story,” she said. “Certainly, figuring out what the right bits of klezmer music that wouldn’t feel totally kind of orthogonal to the kind of movement that the dancers are doing. Pointe shoes and the hora don’t necessarily live in the same universe.”

Tickets for ‘The Wild Rumpus’ are available online.