Arts & Culture

Free Ballet in the Park incorporates Kansas themes

This weekend, Kansans can not only honor their heritage, but learn from it. Three talented artists collaborated in a ballet celebrating their homeland – Kansas.

More than 20 performers will present a free showing of “Prairie Tale,” a celebratory ballet that incorporates live folk music and talented ballet dancers, ages 11 through adult, in an innovative performance based on Kansas’ symbols.

The lead, a monarch butterfly, performed by Kalina Bartlett, is trying to find her way south.

“Similar to the story of ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ we have the lost person on their way home and their friends that help them,” said Jill Landrith, Ballet Wichita’s artistic director and choreographer of “Prairie Tale.”

In 2003, Landrith asked ballerina/writer Marlena Aitken to come up with a script that utilized many of the state’s symbols. Then she asked composer Tom Page to set the piece to music.

“I love collaborating,” Landrith said. She also collaborated with the set designer and the costumer. This piece was originally performed in 2004 and again several years later.

Aitken researched all of the Sunflower State’s symbols and placed many characters into the story. In one scene, an ornate box turtle leans up against a cottonwood tree – the scene incorporates the state amphibian and state tree. In another, a bison stampede – ballet style – is demonstrated by the troupe’s youngest members.

“The monarch butterfly is a representation that there’s a lot of people traveling through Kansas,” Aitken said. “Hopefully those that come through Kansas see how much we have to offer.”

Tom Page and the late Patrick McElmurry arranged both slow-paced and vibrant toe-tapping pieces for this original ballet.

“We tried to keep it in the feel of the traditional prairie music,” Page said.

Page and McElmurry used waltzes to denote the box turtle speaking with the barred tiger salamander and vibrant acoustic melodies to encapsulate the butterfly’s conversation with the sunflowers.

“It’s light, upbeat folk guitar music,” Page said. “We tried to develop themes that evoke the characters.”

The fast-paced dance of the state insect – the honeybee – and the song of the western meadowlark were incorporated into the notes. “Buffalo Gals” and “Home on the Range,” the state song, also are featured. Page will be joined on stage by fellow guitarist Wayne Long. Aitken and her husband, Andy Aitken, will trade off the narrator’s part.

“It’s an incredibly fun outdoors experience,” Landrith said. “We can sneak a little education in and still have a good time.”