By TRAVIS M. WHITEHEAD
HARLINGEN — The energetic young dancers splashed through streets, kicked up loads of water and celebrated the musical they’ll perform this weekend.
The kids will present a novel display of real-life elements when they perform “Earth, Wind and Fire” at the Harlingen Performing Arts Conservatory Saturday at 2 and 6 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.
A special Winter Texan appreciation performance is planned for Friday at 10:30 a.m.
With real rain falling into a trough across the stage, fire rolling up the set, and blasts of wind and thunder filling the auditorium, this show promises to create a bold new foray into the world of local theater.
“It’s the first immersive show that HCISD has ever seen,” said MarKeith Scott, production specialist for the Harlingen school district.
Scott was quick to point out the innovative program has nothing to do with the music band of the same name. This show is all about the elements — and more.
“It snows onstage, there are fire projections, there’s wind in the theater, so you’re completely surrounded by all the sounds and projections with this experience,” Scott said.
And it’s all used to tell a story through dance.
“The story of Earth, Wind and Fire follows a family,” Scott said. “You have the grandmother, Fire, you have Mother Earth, the ex-husband which is Water, and the sun which is Wind.”
The girls seemed to be having a blast earlier this week as they dashed about the stage, rain soaking their red jackets amid nature’s thunderous applause. The girls danced, twisted, spun around, sometimes laughing as they splashed and kicked loads of water between themselves.
And in the midst of this playful revelry there was the clashing of things, the crackling, the unbridled rolling of raw energy, wind like the breath of the universe peeling across a ruptured sky.
“I love it,” said Jacquelin Welch, 16, a junior Conservatory student.
“I love getting to dance with my friends,” Jacquelin said. “I feel like during this show we’ve grown a lot closer. We’ve gotten to do many cool things that I know none of us have ever gotten to do before like just dealing with certain tech element like the rain.”
Obviously the kids and their much-anticipated audience are in for some fresh and tantalizing experiences this weekend. While it promises to be a fun and refreshing show amid these difficult times, it was by no means easy putting it together.
“The immersive elements have been the most challenging aspect,” Scott said. “You have sound mapping, you have video mapping, projection mapping, all of the lighting components, the dancers, there’s wind, there’s snow, and then the dancers and the actors.”
“We’re still thinking outside the box,” said Lee Ann Ince, fine arts coordinator, before “handing the mike” over to Patrick Ulcher, scenic designer at the Conservatory.
“I was asked to design scenery and one of the requests was to make it rain actual water, not just projection rain,” said Ulrich, who hails from California with an MFA in scenic design. He’s also the theater arts teacher at the Dr. Abraham P. Cano Freshman Academy.
“We built a rain curtain that is kind of the finale of the show,” Ulrich said. “So there’s a pump backstage and it pumps 100 gallons of water. So it’s really exciting and it doesn’t ruin anything because we had to build a great big trough that catches it.”
The novelty has not been lost on the young dancers.
“It’s a new experience,” said Alexa St. John, 15, a sophomore at the Conservatory.
“It can be very slippery and some people may fall but we want to be able to not have an accident on the stage,” Alexa said. “I love being able to tell the story just through movement.”
Eleann Lopez choreographed that “movement.”
“It was definitely influenced by the elements,” she said. “But the girls also inspired me. They inspired several movements and themes throughout the show as well.”
The “sound mapping” was made possible by Juan Restrepo, audio engineer for the district.
“We have the capability of creating a map of where sounds are going to travel from,” Restrepo said. “We choose what effects are going through a speaker at a certain time of the show. In this case you have several speakers that trigger sound effects like the wind, like the fire crackling. We have the capability of routing all those sound effects specifically from the source to a specific speaker.”
He’s pleased with the result.
“Oh, it’s great, not only because we have this equipment but we’re able to use it exponentially,” he said. “I never feel this is a high school production, I feel it’s a professional production because of the tools that the school district gives us to work with.”
In the time of COVID-19, only 300 seats are available for three shows because of social distancing, Ince said. Seats are separated by six feet, but families of four can sit together.