When KT Nelson first conceived of a dance adaptation of “The Velveteen Rabbit,” she had never read the book — she had only heard it.
“My first exposure to it was through a live recording,” Nelson says. “When my son was 2, I took him to a sound studio and a sound engineer let us listen to a recording of Margery Williams’ ‘The Velveteen Rabbit.’ I got hooked on it through oral storytelling.”
The impression stuck. On Nov. 25, Nelson’s production for ODC/Dance will open for its 25th year, holding fast to its tradition as a stalwart of the Bay Area’s holiday arts season, offering an alternative to the usual round of “Nutcrackers” and “Messiahs.”
“I had no idea the production would last this long,” Nelson says. “As a modern-dance person I was always busy making new things, but here I am with this old production.”
The production follows Williams’ original tale closely, using both text and dancing to tell the story of a young boy whose love for his toy rabbit has a powerful, transformative effect.
“I think it’s a gem of a story,” Nelson says. “It delves into some fundamental aspects of being human — how to use your imagination and the value of love and friendship. It’s very reflective, but also celebratory about what matters in life.”
The production uses two casts of professional dancers from ODC/Dance and two casts of student performers from the ODC School, which makes for a lively production.
As a mother, Nelson was never too far away from a child’s perspective, always noting her son’s reaction to live performances.
“I saw him lean forward in his chair whenever a smaller person showed up onstage,” Nelson says. “He gravitated toward watching his peers.”
As a family-oriented production, “The Velveteen Rabbit” has been known to garner intense audience reactions.
“You hear the kids in the audience screaming when you’re backstage,” says Daniel Santos, one of the dancers performing the role of the Rabbit this year. “The kids and their energy help us get through the show; it’s very physically demanding.”
Santos, who has worked with Nelson for 10 years and has rehearsed the role of the Rabbit for two, still finds the choreographer’s energy inspiring.
“KT is really engaged, even though she’s been doing this forever,” Santos says. “She gets really excited every time a new season comes along, and she believes in the story’s message.”
Part of Nelson’s passion for the production is that it is more than entertainment. It’s a ritual in the lives of budding dancers. Allowing students to participate in a show that renews itself year after year teaches them some of the same skills practiced by professionals who have to perform “Swan Lake,” “Don Quixote” or “Nutcracker” every season.
“It’s a profound learning experience,” Nelson says. “Think about young kids learning music. They play Bach and Mozart, and the composer’s work is the teacher. The work is the art. Dance is no different. Living through a production like this and its progression year to year is the best teacher about the world of art.”
IF YOU GO
The Velveteen Rabbit
Presented by ODC/Dance
Where: Novellus Theater at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard St., S.F.
When: 2 p.m. Nov. 25-27, Dec. 4 and 11; 11 a.m. Dec. 1-2 and Dec. 8-9; 1 and 4 p.m. Dec. 3 and Dec. 10
Tickets: $15 to $45
Contact: (415) 978-ARTS, odcdance.org
Volumes of ‘Velveteen’
350,000 Estimated viewers nationwide since 1986
500 Performances since first production
115 Hours of rehearsals in 2011
40 Costumes in 2011 production
33 Cast members in 2011
22 Student performers
25 Years performed
10 Feet — height of the character Nana