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Dancing To Shel Silverstein

Dancing To Shel Silverstein

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

‘I grew up with these silly, rhyming poems,” New York-based theater director Celine Rosenthal told The Jewish Week in a recent interview. “I realized how poignant and beautiful they could be.”

She was talking about the work of Shel Silverstein, who was beloved by generations of children for his stories and poetry; he also penned a plethora of cartoons, songs, plays, film scores and travelogues for adults.

Fifteen years after Silverstein’s death, Rosenthal has wed his writing to one of the only art forms in which he never worked — modern dance.

More than half a dozen of Silverstein’s best-known poems have been turned into “Suite Shel,” a set of wordless dances that express the joys and sorrows of childhood. Rosenthal, along with Pushpanjali Sharma and Emily Smyth Vartanian, choreographed the dances, which are running through this weekend at the Connelly Theatre on the Lower East Side, as part of a program called “Rascals With Attitude” ($20; [212] 714-4694).

For Rosenthal, who is working with the General Mischief Dance Theatre, “Dance can be fun and accessible, not necessarily high art.” Seven dancers, six of whom are women, appear in the piece.

Silverstein, born into a Jewish family in Chicago in 1930, had a boundless appetite for life and a keen sense of tragedy, the latter sharpened by the death of both his wife, Susan, and his 11-year-old daughter, Shoshanna. After first achieving fame by contributing cartoons to Playboy and then doing an illustrated travel journal for the same magazine, he wrote children’s books, including “The Giving Tree,” and poetry collections such as “Where the Sidewalk Ends” and “A Light in the Attic.”

While Silverstein never danced or choreographed, some of his poetry and songs deal with dance, and in 1979 he published a picture book for adults, “Different Dances.”

Rosenthal gave poems like “Spider,” Trampoline,” “Dirty Face” and “Shoes” to the General Mischief company and, using a technique known as “devised theater,” asked the dancers, who are in their early 20s, to create physical movements to express the themes contained in them. The audience also gets into the act; for “Shoes,” they are asked to contribute footwear for the piece. Aerial work using bungee cords, ropes, and silks helps to communicate the bliss and abandon of childhood.

Rosenthal hails from Rhode Island; her father is Jewish and her mother is Catholic. She discovered her connection to Judaism while a student at NYU, where she was active in Hillel and sang in a Jewish a cappella group. She locates Silverstein’s Jewishness in his recurring theme of “embracing who you are and enjoying who you are.”

Rosenthal also noted that many of his poems deal with questions of identity. As an example, she quoted from “Underface” — “Underneath my outside face/There’s a face that none can see/A little less smiley/A little less sure/ But a whole lot more like me.”

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