The Darwin the Dinosaur show at Ruth Eckerd Hall on Saturday is a far cry from the typical theater experience. It's a glow-in-the-dark blackout show with eye-popping creatures that move across the stage like crayon squiggles.
The show was created by Ian Carney and Corbin Popp, two ballet dancers who met while dancing in Twyla Tharp's Broadway show Movin' Out. They struck up a friendship over their mutual love of art, theater and technology, and when they came across a product called EL wire everything fell into place.
An electroluminescent wire is powered by batteries and used to illuminate walkways or to decorate an area or cars. The possibilities seemed endless. Together with their wives, who are also dancers, they began to develop puppetry-based creatures and a story.
The cast wears black, so when the theater lights go dark, the neon piping becomes the outlines of their creations, technologically dazzling visuals that the audience appreciates even more when the humans reveal themselves at curtain call.
Darwin tells a story similar to Pinocchio, where a lonely scientist creates a good-natured dinosaur who discovers the outside world. His adventures include escaping a hostile Tyrannosaurus, meeting birds and swimming with bright fish before the scientist goes looking for him.
A love of tinkering and carpentry helped blend dance with puppetry, co-creator Carney said in a phone interview. Shopping at Walmart, they were able to use a skateboard, soccer shin guards, fishing poles and knee pads to come up with a glowing dinosaur that's powered by a ballet dancer's moves.
"I've choreographed a lot of ballet and modern dance, and we are trying to reinvent it. This is dance. Just nobody knows it's dance," because the players are hidden in the dark.
But it's the story that they ultimately had to focus on.
"Cool only gets you five minutes," Carney said. "We knew that the lights look cool, but if you care about the characters you can surf that cool for a long time."
The wordless show uses music ranging from Annie Lennox to Henry Mancini to classical to tell the story of Professor Henslow, a magical scientist who creates Darwin, a dinosaur in need of a heart that changes him from a beastly, prehistoric creature to one that gives and receives love.
Inspired by the dinosaurs in New York's Museum of Natural History, Carney penned the name Darwin, not realizing the polarizing name would one day cause Bible Belt audiences to skip the show, thinking it was an attack on creationism.
"My thinking is the dinosaur is evolving, he's learning things and in each thing he learns he's evolving," Carney said. "I didn't see it as such a polarizing issue, and in some places in the South it was very much one."
The conclusion of the show is also a treat, as the lights come on and the previously hidden performers show their faces, continuing to dance with the puppets they have each been operating. They typically take questions from the audience, showing how the theater can create fantasy from reality.
"For the kids, we are up against every kind of video game, movie, television show, and the last thing they have time for is a human experience of actually being there live when something happens," Carney said. "If we can get them to continue to come back to the theater and realize this is a special place, that is our noble goal."
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If you go
Darwin the Dinosaur
This glow-in-the-dark adventure takes the stage at noon Saturday at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater. Tickets are $10.