The Arthropologist

What it's like to be inside The Lion King: Performer spills the secrets, from puppets to stilts to that cheetah

What it's like to be inside The Lion King: Performer spills the secrets, from puppets to stilts to that cheetah

Lion King, Kendra Moore
Kendra Moore has been with The Lion King for nine years.  Photo by John Ballard
Nancy, Lion King, Jelani Remy as “Simba” from THE LION KING National Tour
Jelani Remy as Simba on the national tour  Photo by Joan Marcus/© Disney
Nancy, Lion King, J. Anthony Crane as “Scar” in THE LION KING National TourNancy, Lion King, J. Anthony Crane as “Scar” in THE LION KING National Tour
J. Anthony Crane as Scar Photo by Joan Marcus/© Disney
Nancy, Lion King, , Buyi Zama as “Rafiki” in the opening number “The Circle of Life” from THE LION KING National Tour
Buyi Zama as Rafiki in the opening number, "The Circle of Life."  Photo by Joan Marcus/© Disney
Nancy, Lion KIng, J. Anthony Crane as “Scar” and Dionne Randolph as “Mufasa” face off in THE LION KING National Tour
J. Anthony Crane as Scar and Dionne Randolph as Mufasa face off in The Lion King. Photo by Joan Marcus/© Disney
Lion King, Kendra Moore
Nancy, Lion King, Jelani Remy as “Simba” from THE LION KING National Tour
Nancy, Lion King, J. Anthony Crane as “Scar” in THE LION KING National TourNancy, Lion King, J. Anthony Crane as “Scar” in THE LION KING National Tour
Nancy, Lion King, , Buyi Zama as “Rafiki” in the opening number “The Circle of Life” from THE LION KING National Tour
Nancy, Lion KIng, J. Anthony Crane as “Scar” and Dionne Randolph as “Mufasa” face off in THE LION KING National Tour

How many ballet dancers can say they have performed as a herd of gazelles?

Kendra Moore, co-dance captain for The Lion King, can. Julie Taymor's iconic musical running is through Aug. 12 at the Hobby Center as part of Gexa Energy Broadway, and over the nine years she's been with the show, Moore has also been a lioness and a cheetah (the latter is her personal favorite) in its various spots.

In addition to making sure that every single second of Garth Fagan's Tony Award-winning choreography stays intact, she's also a swing, meaning she can step in at a moment's notice to perform an ensemble part.

"I even cover some of the men's parts," Moore boasted.

"Do you get to be on stilts?" I asked the former Ballet Austin dancer. "I don't do the stilts, but I have tried them, and they are pretty fun. If only the show had a baby giraffe," she mused. Moore has danced with huge masks on her head while inside a giant animal puppet, and that's impressive enough. 

 OK, so I'm a little late to Simba's party. It's been nearly two decades since I put my sons on the school bus donning Simba backpacks.

 I was jazzed about finally seeing The Lion King, and it didn't disappoint. (That was me hollering for joy when the elephants tumbled down the aisles.) Visually, the piece is stunning, with one gorgeous stage picture after another.

As for the dancing, Fagan's moves seamlessly blend with Taymor's abstract designs. Oh, and the cheetah is superb.

OK, so I'm a little late to Simba's party. It's been nearly two decades since I put my sons on the school bus donning Simba backpacks. The boys were 6 and 4 when they saw the film. I loved the Shakespearean overtones and the father complex that plays out in the movie — it's Hamlet, but with animals. They loved other things, the music, the adventure and the mythic weight of the tale. I bought the CD, and we danced around the house to "The Circle of Life." 

How I missed seeing the Broadway show over all these years, especially being a huge fan of both Fagan and Taymor, had more to do with being gone during the summers and needing to see dance while in New York. 

Moore didn't wait so long. Her dance career was already in full swing when she popped into a local movie theater on her day off from Ballet Austin to see The Lion King. She, too, loved it, and several years later, while dancing with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, she caught the Broadway show.

"Wow, what a way to move a cartoon movie into a theater," Moore recalls. "Yet, I never saw myself being in a Broadway show."

But sure enough, the ballet dancer's life would have a change of course, when she and another Hubbard Street dancer auditioned and got the parts. 

Dancing Fagan's choreography is always a high point for her. "His style is Afro-Caribbean, it's so grounded and earthy," Moore said. "It's the perfect choreography to tell the story."

 "We are storytellers with Julie's puppetry. The puppet becomes part of you, connected to your whole body, it's so symbiotic and, well, beautiful," Moore says. 

When we spoke, Moore had just returned from Rochester (where Fagan is based with his renowned company, Garth Fagan Dance) for a choreographic tune-up. "People come and go in the show, so it's important that they actually get to work with Garth," she said. "In order to truly keep the vision and spirit intact, people need to hear directly from him."

For Moore, the show has proved a huge stretch from her days as a ballet classicist. "We are storytellers with Julie's puppetry. The puppet becomes part of you, connected to your whole body, it's so symbiotic and, well, beautiful," she said. The show is not without its difficult moments, though. "We have to take a lion's head on and off while we are dancing. It can get tricky."

There are other ways the entire experience has opened Moore's world. "As a dancer in smaller companies, I was used to being around 15 to 20 people, and mostly dancers. The Lion King travels with about 100 people," she said. "I'm surrounded by people with so many different talents.

"Also, unlike other touring shows, we stay much longer, so we can unpack and get to know the city and its people."

Moore has also had the privilege of being in Taymor's presence.

"She comes to give us her words of wisdom," she says. "Everything that comes out of her mouth has meaning. She's a genius."

Check out the dancing gazelles in The Lion King.