Ballet Austin II Launches Fables of the World Series

A more inclusive happily ever after with Maria and the Mouse Deer

Ballet Austin II dancers rehearse Maria and the Mouse Deer (Photo by John Anderson)

For generations of young people, the wide world of fables was actually quite small – mostly limited to Grimms' Fairy Tales, the collection first published in 1812 by the German brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.

In contemplating its return to performing before live audiences, Ballet Austin II – Ballet Austin's second company, with dancers also serving as apprentices to the main company – sought to expand their worldview. The company's last live production, Snow White – a Brothers Grimm story obsessed with notions of beauty and who is "fairest of all" – inspired internal conversations about the kind of messages they were sending to young audiences.

"There is room for more new stories," explains rehearsal director and choreographer Alexa Capareda. "The whole initiative with Fables of the World is so that we realize all of the commonalities in the simple stories that we tell. It's meant for everyone."

Ballet Austin II breaks their two-year live audience hiatus this weekend with Maria and the Mouse Deer, the first in a new series called Fables of the World that aims to connect young audiences to a variety of cultures through their fairy tales and legends. Maria and the Mouse Deer is inspired by folk tales from the Philippines, where Capareda was born and raised. She grew up at the foot of Mount Makiling, the shape of which mirrors the profile of a woman lying on her side. Dubbed Maria, she became popular in Philippine mythology as a nature spirit. Capareda recalls being enchanted by the sounds of the rainforest's rustling leaves and animals and feeling surrounded by the mystery and protection of the spirit's magic. In nearby Los Baños, Maria stands in statue alongside animal companions, which further inspired Capareda in bringing their stories to the stage.

"That image was still in my mind as I was making this ballet – Maria with all the animals crowded around her," Capareda recalls. "It's always been a big part of my formative years, the imagination of the forest being alive with things that we didn't know about."

Another folk legend Capareda tapped into for the new production is the Mouse Deer, a beloved native woodland trickster famous for outwitting creatures much larger than its 12-inch-tall frame.

Maria and the Mouse Deer holds a key tenet instilled in Capareda growing up: a respect for nature and the balance and harmony that must be maintained within it. The two legends join to tell a story of environmental appreciation, where Maria teaches a zookeeper's nephew – and with his help, the entire town – the harm in collecting animals from the forest. The Mouse Deer helps the two cross the river on the back of a ravenous crocodile using trickery and magic.

The show speaks to what Capareda acknowledges as a universal truth, across all humans and cultures: We need to listen to what nature is telling us.

"It's a lesson that all of us, from the youngest ones to the oldest people, can be reminded of – we only have one earth," Capareda says. "The reminder of this harmony that's necessary with our planet and our environment and what we take for granted; the beautiful things that it offers."

AustinVentures StudioTheater's intimate space allows audiences to explore "nature" up close. The forest onstage, lit by Steven Myers and designed by Patrick and Holly Crowley, is populated with native Philippine plants and animals and brought to life in costume inspired by traditional garb. Feathers, flowers, and scales, along with accurate and adorable headpieces designed by Benjamin Taylor Ridgway, were made to resemble birds, mammals, or crocodiles.

"It was important to me to make sure they had some pretty good semblance for the kids who have no real context of what these creatures really look like, to make sure that they invoke those cute animals," Capareda says.

The show combines elements of Philippine traditional folk dance with ballet, reminiscent of what Capareda practiced growing up, set to a fusion of contemporary and traditional folk music in an effort to bring authenticity in each design element. The process sets a precedent for future Fables of the World productions.

"How we want to do this each time is to have as much of authenticity within what the choreographer has come from, and to surround it with curricula that supports the learning of the sharing of that culture, as well as trying to connect with communities," Capareda explains. "It's a little extra special to be connecting with the communities that are represented in these stories."

The emphasis is not just on entertaining children, but on exposing them to new ideas and imagery.

"I'm really excited about the prospect of opening up kids' minds to even just think about what kind of animals live in another climate, realizing there's this whole other culture," Capareda says. "The most rewarding part of my work is connecting with audiences that maybe haven't seen as much performance and with children, especially, who can connect to the arts and have their minds open up to the power of the arts and the power of dances as a powerful means of connection."

For others, seeing Mount Makiling depicted onstage will be a familiar call to home – a representation important to Capareda to offer fellow Filipino Americans.

"To see that story and that culture represented is really exciting and more powerful than we realize."

Ballet Austin II’s Maria and the Mouse Deer runs Oct. 15-16 & 22-23, 2 & 4:30pm, at AustinVentures StudioTheater (501 W. Third). See for more info.

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Ballet Austin II, Fables of the World, Alexa Capareda, Steven Myers, Patrick Crowley, Holly Crowley, Benjamin Taylor Ridgway, Maria and the Mouse

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