Dallas — The holidays can be quite a sensory overload. Bright lights, bountiful colors, and jingly music easily instill joy and glee, but at times it’s just overwhelming. Take The Nutcracker, for example. A complex score, a plethora of dancers, intricate costumes, and extravagant set pieces are all elements that make the viewing experience magical, but it becomes dizzying sometimes.
Avant Chamber Ballet, directed by Katie Cooper, takes a different route. This year’s Holiday Celebration presented at Dallas City Performance Hall, employs a much different aesthetic than other holiday-themed performances. Since its creation in 2012, the company directs its resources away from grand productions, lavish costumes, and large casts in favor of live music for every production, even if it’s relatively few musicians. The result is a much clearer aesthetic, and although the stage may seem visually austere (especially for this holiday show), it creates room for the music and movement to shine through.
The company brings back Sleigh Ride from last year’s holiday performance, a series of seven dances accompanied by Bishop Arts Brass. The five-member horn ensemble was created in 2013 by ACB music director David Cooper and has since enjoyed growing success. The musicians share the stage with eight dancers clad in short red dresses with hints of white, and considering that the upcoming Nutcracker arrangement of Act II is the highlight of the evening, it’s only fitting that the “Nutcracker March” opens this segment of the show.
Katie Cooper’s choreography fits seamlessly with the visual and aural simplicity of the performance. With lovely port de bras and clean formations, the dancers exhibit the joy of the holiday classic in a decidedly different manner.
The brass ensemble changes the mood with a few Vince Guaraldi arrangements of classic carols as well as his composition “Skating Song” from Charlie Brown Christmas. Juliann McAloon shines in “O Tannenbaum” with a cutesy turning sequence, and Kirsten Conrad lends a luscious quality in “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”
To close the act, the dancers match the lively feel of Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” and add a flirtatious texture. As the dancers weave around the stage, they mimic the quick and jazzy moments of the song.
The first part of the evening reveals a downside to ACB’s modest aesthetic. The individual dancers execute the choreography quite well, but in multiple instances they fall short of moving as an ensemble. Since the movement is the main visual focus, subtle differences in timing and lines are glaringly obvious, creating a fuzzy picture at times.
This issue is remedied a bit for Act II’s Nutcracker: Short and Suite, in which the classic show receives a Balanchine-style makeover. Even though the ballet legend created a lavish Nutcracker production, his most famous ballets went the opposite direction, and Katie Cooper employs similar tactics. All narrative is stripped away, and only the divertissements of the second act remain. A solo pianist tackles Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s score, and initial fears of an inadequate sound are immediately swept away by Saule Garcia’s deft movements over the keys.
The dance contains the most intricate costumes I’ve ever seen ACB wear, yet they still fit in with the picture. And just as in the first act, individual dancers really pop out. Yulia Ilina floats across the stage as an ethereal Sugar Plum Fairy in pink, and Sarah Grace Austin stands above in the Spanish Chocolate. Megan Van Horn is stunning in her sultry rendition of the Arabian, and while Kaitlyn McDermitt seemed shy and withdrawn earlier in the evening, she comes alive in the Russian Trepak.
The “Waltz of the Flowers” is the only place where a full orchestra is missed, but the dancers impress with the best showing of timing and precision of the evening, even amidst more complex choreography. Fatigue begins to show at the end, but it doesn’t affect the picture as much because the large number of dancers makes up for the minimalism felt throughout the show.
The abbreviated grand pas de deux between Ilina and Eugene Barnes has a rough beginning, but their professionalism and experience allow them to smooth out the edges and finish on a high note. Ilina had already danced her solo at the beginning of the act, so the adagio and coda are only performed here.
Ensemble issues pop up again throughout the act, so it’s an area that could use work for future productions. That aside, though, it’s a nice, intimate show. The Dallas City Performance Hall (ACB’s new performance home) is the perfect venue for live music and dance collaborations. The company proves once again that it fills a needed gap in the Dallas dance community.