Kenya’s performing arts are already tumbling towards June when we will finally have the chance to see Nairobi’s first major musical of the year with Dance Centre Kenya surprisingly staging Oliver: the Musical from June 9-11 at Kenya National Theatre.
DCK is a company that has specialised in teaching and performing ballet, a Western form of dance that Cooper Rust has had a big hand in awakening local interest.
Since the Centre took off in 2015, bringing together children from elite and underprivileged homes, it has gradually expanded its teaching agenda to include everything from tap and hip hop to modern and African dance.
But it had always focused on ballet as its leading dance form to showcase. Now, it’s a new day for DCK since Oliver is its first major effort at staging musical theatre.
DCK will be offering many surprises in the show, starting with our chance to hear the musical voice of John Sibi-Okumu who Cooper managed to persuade to come on board and play Fagin as a baritone in the show.
Then there’s the fact that we have never seen Cooper direct a stage play before, leave alone a musical. She’s magnificent at directing ballet.
But then again, ballet is much like a musical, given both tell captivating stories, and are best blended with beautiful sets, melodic music, and casts that require constant attention to ensure they perform to perfection.
The language of ballet is of course dance, while the language of the musical is largely voice. After that, both are about bodies which need to be choreographed, whether as ballet or musical theatre.
What I admire about DCK’s picking up the gauntlet and producing the first musical of 2023 is the professionalism that we’ll be able to see.
For just as Aperture Africa printed programs for the public to appreciate who is who and what is what in their recent production of ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’, DCK always prepares informative programs to share. DCK also starts early selling tickets and publicizing their shows.
Why more local groups cannot do the same thing is a mystery. There are companies that promote their shows early, like Heartstrings, Prevail and Chemi Chemi Players.
But perhaps the rest can learn from those practical examples as well as from DCK.
The other great thing about this Oliver is that the show will be backed with live music by the Safaricom Youth Orchestra under the baton of conductor Levi Wataka, a brilliant pioneer in a musical profession that few if any Kenyans have taken beyond church choirs or the annual Kenya Musical Festivals.
But the challenge facing Cooper right now is timing and ensuring there is sufficient time for all the cast members to feel confident and well-rehearsed.
In order to meet the deadline of their June 11 opening at Kenya National Theatre, Cooper has organized a smart division of labour: she has a voice coach in May Ombara who is helping the cast not only learn their lines but also learn how to sing the musical’s marvellous songs.
She also has Caroline Slot helping her prepare the children playing orphans and Fagin’s gangsters to act, sing, and dance.
Cooper, of course, is involved in every dimension of the musical, from the choreography (which she can’t help enhancing with a bit of ballet) to the acting, singing, and technical elements of the show.
“Most Kenyans are more familiar with the songs in Oliver so it will be important for Cooper to balance the dance and song elements of the musical,” award-winning actor, director, drama teacher, and ‘celeb’ Ian Mbugua tells BDLife.
No doubt, embarking on the production of a musical is a major feat, and Cooper has been in countless musicals as a prima ballerina in the States, a place she raises funds to send some of her best students to attend dance camps, irrespective of whether they came from Kibera or Karen.
But being in a musical and actually producing one is another thing. Yet part of the beauty of Cooper producing Oliver out of the Dance Centre is that she has scores of her young students happy to audition for parts as either orphans or Fagin’s ‘gangsters’.
And with the kids have always come parents who have been equally committed to assisting Cooper with everything from costuming to set construction to marketing DCK’s shows.
So, we look forward to watching Oliver the Musical like it’s never been staged here before, thanks to DCK and Cooper.