Tom Sawyer – A Ballet in 3 Acts

Dancers Charles Martin and Alexander Peters. Photographer Steve Wilson.
Dancers Charles Martin and Alexander Peters. Photographer Steve Wilson.

Composed by Maury Yeston
Directed and Choreographed by William Whitener
Orchestrated by Brad Dechter
Conducted by Ramona Pansegrau
Scenic Design by Walt Spangler
Costume Design by Holly Hynes
Lighting Design by Kirk Bookman
Choreographer assisted by Shelley Freydont
Additional Orchestrations by Peter Boyer, Andrew Kinney,
Hummie Mann

About the ballet
Every project…a song, play, novel, film, poem, dance…begins as somebody’s dream…and if one is very lucky, hardworking, and patient, only sometimes can that dream become a reality. This is one of those sometimes. Many years ago I asked myself as a composer, and musicologist, and lover of the Ballet, if I could identify the title of America’s most prominent three-act, full-length ballet – one specifically written by an American composer, based on an American literary masterpiece and premiered by an American choreographer and Company. I could not answer my own question.
In an instant I thought “well, why don’t I write Tom Sawyer?” The music flew from my fingers almost as soon as I had the thought, and my intuition about the subject matter became increasingly validated as I noted that Twain’s masterpiece, like a good ballet, was episodic…Tom’s tricking his friends into whitewashing the fence – lost in the cave with Becky Thatcher – witnessing a murder with Huck in the graveyard – getting lost on the Mississippi and returning to secretly observe his own funeral! And I wanted the music of the piece to feel visual, and to reflect the great heritage of our American music, and to be accessible (like Twain’s novel) to people of all ages.

As if a bolt of lightning illuminated an entire landscape for a split second, I saw in my mind the entire scenario and began to see the mythic and central role of the great Mississippi at the core and heart of the piece, the open landscape of the Great Plains, the “westering” nature of our American yearning for an endless frontier, and the profound connection whereby Twain preserved for all time not only the eternal youth of boyhood but also, metaphorically, an eternal portrait of the youth of America, the era of the America in which he lived.

And then I stopped. And I realized if I continued to compose, I would end up with a concert piece. But the Broadway dramatist within me knew instinctively that the event had to reside in the dance onstage, and not merely in the orchestra pit, and therefore I could only proceed in collaboration with a great choreographer. Though I never stopped developing and refining my own ideas, I kept waiting until fate and providence brought me and the remarkable William Whitener into the same room and from that point on we were off to the races.

What has thrilled me most about this collaborative process has been the discoveries made along the way – particularly how the narrative elements (a murder, a trial, Tom’s exculpatory testimony) could be counterbalanced by the buoyancy of pure imagination. It is summer evening, in Missouri? There would be Fireflies! Boys in a cemetery at midnight? They would imagine Ghosts and Goblins!

With the brilliance of William Whitener and our company of dancers, the work of Brad Dechter, Holly Hynes, Kirk Bookman, Shelley Freydont, Ramona Pansegrau, and Walt Spangler, and thanks to the extraordinary vision, support and generosity of Julia Kauffman and a host of donors, the dream of long ago miraculously has become actual, and the great characters and creations of Mark Twain can now dance onstage as they have danced, for over a century, in our minds.
– Maury Yeston

This ballet is dedicated to my father, Warren Whitener, who believed in and supported my will to dance.
– William Whitener

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