The Rabbit Turns 30

Original drawings by Brian Wildsmith for “The Velveteen Rabbit”

Bay Area choreographer KT Nelson remembers taking her son to performances when he was as old as 6 months old and noticing how he shifted forward in his seat when children appeared on stage. She also remarked that shows that included music and text got his attention. So she decided to create a piece that would include children and narration. “As you see, I used my son to figure out a few things!” Nelson exclaimed to a young viewer who had come with his mother to hear the choreographer speak about the making of The Velveteen Rabbit during a gallery tour at the “Welcome Home @ 40” theater exhibition last month. Created in 1986, The Velveteen Rabbit celebrates 30 this year and is presented at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts through December 11.

Around the same time she was observing her son and getting creative cues from him, Nelson heard a 30-minute bedtime recording of The Velveteen Rabbit in which Meryl Streep narrated and George Winston played the piano. “I was taken by Margery Williams’ story which I heard for the first time when I was 31. At that time, after the birth of my son, I was experiencing mortality for the first time. Once you have a child, you soon realize you’re going to pass on and your kids are going to live on- you get that sense of the cannon of ‘being.’ The other thing I discovered was a love of Margery Williams’ language. She had formality, wit and just some down right fun in her prose. Her deeper message of love, becoming ‘real’ and the bump and scraps of life felt just right to me,” Nelson shared. “I first heard this story as a bedtime audio story. It was more of a radio experience than a literary one. I was influenced by the way the producers scenically shaped the tale, Meryl’s dramatic interpretation and Winston’s emotional touch. If I had read the book first this production might have evolved very differently.”

Nelson first choreographed a 30-minute version that featured painted costumes, tights and t-shirts. “The skin horse wore a beige turtleneck with a woolen tail tagged on; the fairy wore costume designer Janet Kokie’s wedding dress; Nana jumped up into the arms of another dancer, wrapped a piece of navy blue velveteen around their shoulders and became a two story character towering over everyone else. It was very low tech! But with little resources we found simple solutions that were effective enough that they remain today,” Nelson continued.

At the time, ODC partnered with a local organization that worked with children, who provided drawings for the set. During the 2 weeks that the show ran, The Velveteen Rabbit –which was ODC’s first family production- was very successful and drew families to The New Performance Gallery, now ODC Theater. ODC founder and Artistic Director Brenda Way suggested to Nelson to make the piece into an evening-length work. So Nelson started to listen to music and finally decided on Benjamin Britten. With a background in music composition and conducting, she collected a lot of Britten’s scores and put them together.

As for the set and costume designer of the evening length version of the Velveteen Rabbit, Nelson reached out to children’s book authors Brian Wildsmith and Eric Carle. Both agreed to collaborate, but Nelson chose to work with Wildsmith. “He had an adventurous use of color and images. I loved his mix of watercolor and hard geometric design, his fantastical imagination, his dynamic composition of complex and minimally filled space and his use of contrast,” Nelson explained. “He said he could draw a lot of animals but his least favorite was a rabbit! With some outside help we found a solution. Even without major input on the main character, Brian’s designs have had profound impact on The Velveteen Rabbit production.”

Today, The Velveteen Rabbit involves 2 casts of 10 children who work intimately with the ODC dancers. Ranging in age and training, children audition in early October and rehearse 3 hours a day on weekends for 6 weeks. They are individually coached and partnered by the ODC dancers and dance side by side with them. As Nelson shared during her talk last month, this is one of the most significant –and fairly unknown- impacts of The Velveteen Rabbit. “These children are given a context of excellence both in dance and human economy. The opportunity for children to dance with professional dancers is rare. Performing side by side and being part of the ODC team is invaluable whether they end up being dancers or not.”

Noticing early on the positive effects that this experience had on children led Nelson to create ODC Dance Jam, which originally included a group of elementary school children and now consists of pre-professional teenagers. On the lasting success of The Velveteen Rabbit, Nelson commented: “It is a well written story that has something lasting in it and resonate with any generation.”