Though The Sea Lion, Ken Kesey’s tale based on the mythology of the Northwest Coast Indians, wound up as a children’s book, the author originally intended it to be a three-part rock ballet scored by the Grateful Dead. Kesey discussed his vision for the ballet with Old Dominion University’s student newspaper during a 1982 visit to Virginia:
He says he has just spent all of last year researching Northwest Indian myths. The author wants to write a ballet featuring the Indian legends, and have the music written and performed by rock group the Grateful Dead. “I want the Dead to write the music and score for an orchestra,’’ Kesey explains, “and put the Dead down in the orchestra pit where they belong! The Dead are the best!”
The Greatful Dead traveled with Kesey to the site of the Indian rituals, where they saw the rites performed by the Kwakutl, Tlingit, and Hiada Indian tribes. Kesey wants the Dead to do the ballet because “They won’t be remembered unless they do something permanent.”
Kesey says the performers are enthused about the project, and that Bill Graham, the rock promoter, is very interested in staging the production. Kesey doesn’t want the ballet to be just another rock performance, or rock “opera.” He wants it to be something special and lasting.
The ballet will be called ‘The Sea Lion,” and will concern a boy who finds a magic amulet of god. Later, the boy must contend with magical powers and the designs of necromancers.
Kesey believes the ballet would be a success, and would preserve the mythology of the Indians as well as returning the sense of story and art to people.
“I’d love to see Baryshnikov do it!” Kesey laughs.
Given the personalities involved and the size of the undertaking, it is perhaps not too surprising that this ambitious project was never realized—at least, not with the Dead’s participation. The Sea Lion wasn’t dramatized until 2002, the year after Kesey’s death, when a Chicago-area YMCA staged a production.
In the news clip below, the Dead get back on the bus with Kesey to learn about the folklore of the Northwest Coast Indians at the Lelooska Foundation in Ariel, Washington. It all starts to make a lot of sense as soon as you see the masks.