Monday, September 22, 2014
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Dancing with the Hinckley fire
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Joe Chvala and Zoe Pappas perform in "Fireball." (Image courtesy of the Great American History Theater, Ann Marsden photographer)
On Sept. 1, 1894, one of the worst forest fires in U.S. history destroyed the Minnesota logging town of Hinckley. The cyclone of fire shot flames miles in the air, and killed more than 400 people. The Great American History Theatre tells the story in its new production, "Fireball."

St. Paul, Minn. — When the folks at the Great American History Theatre invited Peter Ostroushko to write music for a production about the Hinckley fire, they told him they'd been kicking around the idea of telling the story through dance. He admits he had some doubts.

"I was dead set against the idea that they were going to do it as a ballet. I was ready to quit at any time if they demanded it was going to be a ballet," Ostroushko grins.

The History Theatre wasn't necessarily looking for a ballet, but a way to tell the sometimes horrific story of the Hinkley fire on stage. In time, Ostroushko was convinced.

"We wanted to avoid making it into a present-day 'Titanic,'" he says. "We wanted to be as respectful as we could, and yet creative in the process."

The History Theatre then turned to choreographer and dancer Joe Chvala. He's the founder of the percussive dance company, The Flying Foot Forum. Like Ostroushko, he also had his doubts.

"We did a lot of head-scratching. We were kind of Doubting Thomases about whether we were even going to be able to tell this story because it is so huge," Chvala says. "So, I finally said, 'I can't imagine doing this completely as a dance piece, so why don't we look for a playwright?'"

They found Roger Niebor. He grew up near Hinckley, and heard stories of the disastrous 1894 fire.

During his first meeting with Ostroushko and Chvala, Niebor brought in some memorabilia. He had pictures from the 1954 pageant staged in Hinckley, which marked the 60th anniversary of the fire. Among them was a photograph of Niebor's parents as the pageant's king and queen.

That gave them the idea of telling the story of the Hinckley fire by juxtaposing the harrowing tales of survivors and victims, with scenes of the townspeople six decades later putting together a pageant. Roger Niebor says this allows the show to present different perspectives of the fire.

"To us it was really interesting to look at how people in 1954 looked back at 1894, and then how in turn we look back at 1954," Niebor says.

By including fictionalized scenes of the 1954 pageant, the creators of "FireBall" were able to inject a bit of humor into what would otherwise be a completely somber production.

The musical number "Lumber Barons Are We" pokes fun at the insensitive environmental attitudes that helped create the conditions for the fire, and also presents an opportunity for Joe Chvala and the Flying Foot Forum to feature some of their lively, percussive dance.

Karen Weber portrays legendary New York Times reporter Nellie Bly, who serves as a narrator for the story of the Hinckley fire. She says these lighthearted moments in the Great American History Theatre's "FireBall" are important to bring some balance to this story of disaster, death and survival.

"I think people would be so mired in the enormity and sadness -- and just the tragedy of what happened -- that I don't think that by the end of two hours of it, that they actually would have been able to experience as well as they can in this," Weber says.

"FireBall" includes poignant, real-life stories about the people of Hinckley trying to flee the raging fire by squeezing onto a train, and seeking shelter in swamps and root cellars. Joe Chvala says it's during these heart-wrenching moments that the production returns to the original idea of telling the story through dance.

"The emotional part of this show is so strong, and you need to express it in a way beyond just words or beyond just storytelling," Chvala says. "I think dance does that very well."

Despite his initial concerns, Peter Ostroushko is happy with the show. He performs the music live, and says he feels proud of what he helped create.

"It doesn't matter how many times I've seen it," he says. "It's very satisfying, from where it starts to where it ends, that there is this wonderful story that's been told. And I feel great every time it ends. You know, it's just like, 'Good job!'" he says with a laugh.

"FireBall" runs at the Great American History Theatre in St. Paul through March 27.

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