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Pittsburgh International Children’s Festival opens windows to world

Tribune-Review
| Sunday, May 11, 2003 12:00 a.m

Beginning Wednesday, West Park and the area around it will be taken over by a fairy godmother with an enormous handbag; a 6-foot-5 actor narrating a slightly scary story in verse; the Norse god Odin on a search for wisdom; a circus troupe of elves; and a troupe of West African dancers on stilts.

Each spring since 1986, the Pittsburgh International Children’s Festival has transformed a leafy, lawn-covered area of the North Side park into a multicultural, multi-disciplinary arts center where performers from around the world gather to entertain. The park isn’t big enough to contain all of the performances and auxiliary events, so the festival spreads out to stages in nearby buildings such as Allegheny Traditional Academy and Cardinal Wright School.

This year, the five-day festival showcases five performance groups from Europe and West Africa and one intriguing multi-sensory experience. Those six events are surrounded by a variety of cultural, educational and recreational activities. Before, after and between performances, youngsters can blow off steam while widening their horizons by exploring arts and crafts projects, the National Aviary, a petting zoo and the ever-popular paddle boats that skim the surface of the park’s lake.

“The challenge of programming is finding what’s appropriate for families of all ages,” says the festival’s executive director, Sara Jane Lowry.

For the youngest audience members, the festival offers the slightly shivery thrills of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheller’s popular story “Gruffalo,” about a mouse who concocts a tale about a scary monster, then encounters that fearsome Gruffalo in the forest. It’s done as a musical with lots of rhyming dialogue, a snake in a serape with a marimba rattle and a 6-foot-5-inch tall narrator who also plays the Gruffalo. “The kids see him first — as narrator — so it takes away from the terror when they see the monster,” Lowry says.

For older kids, Lowry has brought in “The Prophecy” from Iceland, which is performed by a storyteller and a cellist. “We don’t always go with programming for older children,” she says. The story of the Norse god Odin and his quest for knowledge includes a graphic passage about a raven plucking out eyes. Although the story has been told and retold for centuries, it took some persuading for Lowry to include it.

“I wasn’t sure how people would react,” she says.

Lowry knows that families who attend can range in age from tots to great-grandparents.

In putting together the festival schedule, Lowry and her staff didn’t look for a show that will appeal just to a 4-year-old or a play that will engage a 10-year-old.

She tried to find at least one or two shows that tots, teens and adults will all enjoy simultaneously.

Sharing cultural experiences together, she says, is the festival’s mission.

This year’s all-ages events are Circus Hurjaruuth from Finland and the Kotchenga Dance Company, a cooperative production of Ivory Coast and African-American dancers sponsored by the Center for Traditional Music and Dance in New York City.

The clowns in Circus Hurjaruuth portray Brownies, or Finnish elves, who juggle, tumble and perform heart-stopping acrobatic stunts and bicycle tricks. Unlike an American-style circus, there are no animals or aerial maneuvers. But Lowry promises that audiences will be too busy enjoying themselves to miss them.

The West African dancing and drumming of Kotchenga is also calculated to astonish as well as engage. Perched perilously high on stilts, these dancers perform a series of don’t-even-bother-trying-this-at-home moves as they enact tales of the female deity Zaouly and of Gue Pelou, who mediates between those in the land of the ancestors and the living.

Another event that’s accessible to all, but at different levels, is “Arcazaar,” a luminarium from England. It’s a giant inflatable nylon walk-through sculpture with soaring turrets and honeycomb of chambers large and small.

“We needed something to create a new visual excitement about the festival,” Lowry says. “We asked ourselves what we could do to make a splash.”

Approximately 80 people at a time are given 20 minutes to wander through the sculpture at their own pace as music fills the air.

“I think of it as an opportunity to inhabit a physical art space with light and ambient music coming through the space,” Lowry says.

In that light, “Arcazaar” may be the perfect symbol for the entire festival.

The events might offer prime examples of high art — dance, music, theater and visual media. But kids and their parents are likely to experience them as just plain fun.

Performances


“Cinderella”

From: Scotland

What : An innovative table-top puppet show performance of the traditional story of Cinderella told by one puppeteer who pulls props from trap doors and transforms gloves into wicked stepsisters.

Length : 45 minutes.

Best for : Ages 5 and older.

Where : Cardinal Wright School, West Commons.

When : 12:30 p.m. Wednesday; 9:45 and 11:15 a.m. Thursday; 12:30 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.Saturday; and 12:30 and 2 p.m. May 18.

“Gruffalo”

From: England.

What : Julia Donaldson and Asel Scheffler’s picture book is adapted into a musical about a mouse who scares other animals away by making up stories of a Gruffalo, then encounters his fantasy creature on a journey into the forest.

Length: 45 minutes.

Best for : Ages 3 through 8.

Where : Cardinal Wright School, West Commons.

When : 9:45 and 11:15 a.m. Wednesday; 12:30 p.m. Thursday; 9:45 and 11:15 a.m. Friday and 2 and 3:30 p.m.Saturday.

“Kotchegna Dance Company”

From: Ivory Coast.

What : West African dancers bring to life the stories and legends of Africa’s Ivory Coast through a combination of over 60 regional dance styles. Stilt dancers with vividly patterned costumes and family heirloom masks are accompanied by percussion instruments such as tambourines, rattles, claves, nungu drums, tabor drums, goblet drums, and kalengo drums.

Length : 45 minutes.

Best for : All ages.

Where : Allegheny Traditional Academy, Race Street.

When : 9:45 and 11:15 a.m. Wednesday; 12:30 p.m.Thursday, 9:45 and 11:15 a.m.Friday; 2 and 3:30 p.m. Saturday; and 12:30 p.m. Sunday

“The Prophecy”

From: Iceland.

What : An actor-storyteller aided by a cellist and an array of sound effects spins tales of the ruling god of Norse mythology. The actor transforms himself into each of the characters as Odin drinks from the giant’s well of wisdom and meets the oracle Vala, who predicts the future.

Length : 45 minutes.

Best for: Ages 8 and older.

Where : Aviary Tent in West Park.

When : 9:45 and 11:15 a.m.Wednesday through Friday; 2 p.m Saturday and 3:30 p.m.Sunday.

Circus Hurjaruuth

From: Finland.

What : A circus and a story folded into a single performance. Clowns, acrobatic stunts, dance, juggling magic, tumbling and bicycle tricks are used to create stories of Brownies — Finnish household fairies — and their adventures in the forests of Finland.

Length : 50 minutes.

Best for : All ages.

Where : Allegheny Traditional Academy on Race Street.

When : 12:30 p.m.Wednesday; 9:45 and 11:15 a.m.Thursday; 12:30 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 3:30 p.m.Sunday.

Arcazaar

From: England.

What : A giant — 128 feet long by 107 feet wide — inflatable adventure sculpture creates a walk-through sound and light experience. Visitors will enter the sculpture through an airlock, explore labyrinthine passages and gaze up at soaring domes — the highest reaches 26 feet — all alive with color and sound.

Length : 20 minutes.

Best for : All ages.

Where : West Park.

When : Every half hour from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

Additional event

A special performance of the Kotchegna Dance Company will be offered for those not attending the International Children’s Festival or hoping to sample one of its events in an evening setting.

The dancers and musicians of Kotchegna will bring their traditional costumes and pulsing drum rhythms of the Ivory Coast to the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, 5941 Penn Ave., East Liberty, for a single performance at 7 p.m. on Thursday. The cost is $6; $4 for children.

“One of the things important to me was finding out how we could bring our program out to the community. I would like to see us do more of that while (these performing groups) are here,” says Sara Jane Lowry, executive director of the International Children’s Festival.

Details: (412) 321-5520.

Additional Information:

Details

International Children’s Festival

  • Produced by the Pittsburgh International Children’s Theater.

  • Wednesday through May 18. Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. May 18.

  • Tickets purchased in advance are $4 for admission to festival grounds only; $6 per person for festival admission and one show; $10 per person for festival admission and two shows and $13 per person for festival admission and three shows.

    Tickets purchased at the festival are $5 for admission to festival grounds only; $8 per person for festival admission and one show; $13 per person for festival admission and two shows and $18 per person for festival admission and three shows.

  • West Park and Allegheny Center, North Side. Enter West Park through an entrance at West Ohio and Arch street.

  • Details: (412) 321-5520.

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