Tulane University dance professor Ian Carney spent three years in New York performing as the lead in Movin' Out, the Broadway musical created by pop singer Billy Joel and renowned choreographer Twyla Tharp. In his free time, he often visited the American Museum of Natural History, where he developed an interest in the fossils of birds and dinosaurs. When fellow Movin' Out cast member Corbin Popp began experimenting with electroluminescent wire, Carney suggested making a dinosaur.
The wire figures grew from small puppets to full-body costumes with extended tails, wings, long necks and fearsome jaws. Combining art, science, dance and drama, the two created Darwin the Dinosaur, an all-ages show in which the whimsical creatures come to life in vibrant lights in a completely dark theater, appearing almost like the fast action of a video game.
"We wanted to give kids a way into dance and theater that was cool," Carney says. "When I was little, in ballet, I wanted to fight with swords. I wanted a superhero ballet."
With their wives, Eleanor Carney and Whitney Popp, Ian and Corbin developed the show and have toured with it. They return home for its local debut, opening at the Contemporary Arts Center on Friday.
Together, the couples formed CORBiAN Visual Arts and Dance. Classical ballet is their common denominator. Ian and Eleanor Carney were principal dancers with the Montgomery Ballet in the late 1990s. Ian grew up in New Orleans and graduated from Tulane, where he currently teaches dance. Corbin Popp grew up in Nebraska and has performed with several ballet companies.
Darwin the Dinosaur has no spoken narrative and relies on the effects of the electroluminescent wire, wild movement and music. There also are pop cultural references to films including Star Wars and The Matrix. In the story, Professor Henslow (Popp) creates a dinosaur (Carney) and names it after Charles Darwin (who had a real-life mentor named Henslow). To keep Darwin from eating him, Henslow gives the dinosaur a heart, and they become friends. Darwin then heads out into the world and encounters large birds, fish and turtles, and he battles a frightening red dinosaur named Brutus.
Carney says they had no intention of broaching the issues of evolution or creationism, though that controversy has been raised at some performances. Instead, the story is about science, magic and transformation, he says.
"I just love the idea that the heart evolves, that we learn one thing and our experience moves us from there," he says.
The group presented Darwin at the National Puppetry Festival in July. The company travels to Russia for performances in October, and work is under way on new projects. Next up is an adaption of The Ugly Duckling, expected to open in Austin in January 2012, and a version of "The Tortoise and the Hare" is in development for next summer.