Dallas — Avant Chamber Ballet’s (ACB) Artistic Director Katie Cooper has always marched to the beat of her own drum. So, it isn’t surprising that while all the other ballet companies in Dallas were focused on Nutcracker prep, this fall Cooper was busy creating her own Charles Dickens’-inspired holiday production, A Ballet Christmas Carol, which the company will premiere at Dallas City Performance Hall Dec. 15-16.
A Ballet Christmas Carol, Cooper’s grandest production to date, features a cast of 30 dancers, including students from LifeSong in Grapevine, Mejia Ballet in Arlington, and Park Cities Dance in Dallas as well as guest artists from professional companies Suzanne Farrell Ballet and Memphis Ballet. The score features Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s string quartets interwoven between Nutcracker variations, including The Waltz of the Flowers, Mother Ginger, Mirlitons and The Waltz of the Snowflakes, which will be performed live by a piano quintet featuring members of Dallas Opera Orchestra and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.
Cooper has added her own twist to the classic Dickens’ tale by having the whole story take place in the dance world with a female playing the role of Scrooge. “It has been so much fun creating the libretto,” Cooper says. “The story unfolded with so much ease in the flashbacks of our lives as dancers in the studio and also the choices we all make in love and life that everyone goes through.”
In Cooper’s version Scrooge (Natalie Kischuk on Thursday and Kaitlyn McDermitt on Friday) is a bitter ballet mistress and Bob Crachit is replaced with Robin Crachit (Kirsten Conrad) an aspiring dancer and teacher who can never do anything right in Scrooge’s eyes. (It's not the only local Christmas Carol with a female Scroore; see Dallas Theater Center's production). After a rough day at the studio Scrooge falls asleep where she is visited by three ghosts: Ghost of Christmas Past (Melissa Meng), Present (Christy Martin), and Future (Yulia Ilina), who then help her rediscover her love for dance one memorable moment at a time.
The choreography is quintessential Balanchine technique i.e. deep plies, asymmetrical arm placements, distinctive arabesque lines, but Cooper adds her own flair with pick up movement, ever-changing formations and fast, complicated footwork to heighten the viewers’ senses. Cooper also took a page out of Balanchine’s ballet handbook when it comes to the storytelling component of the show. “I have always been a fan of Balanchine’s story ballets. He tells the story though more dancing than pantomime. Also, the corps dancers aren’t just ornamentation and for posing. Everyone has great choreography and is part of the story.”
I saw all these elements at work during the company’s rehearsal last Wednesday afternoon at Park Cities Dance. When I arrived the dancers were just about to run through the Ghost of Christmas Future section featuring company dancer Yulia Ilina. Over the last couple of years Ilina has proven herself to be a chameleon on the dance floor. It seems as if no matter the style (modern, classical, neo-classical) or the character (Queen of Hearts, Sugar Plum Fairy, Ghost of Christmas Future) Ilina approaches every new challenge with an open mind and graceful confidence. In this instance Ilina perfectly captures the ominous aura surrounding the Ghost of Christmas Future with her hyper aware body positions, dynamic facial expressions and deliberate pointe work. Ilina uses a series of jumps, turns and purposeful gesturing to convey to Scrooge what will happen if she keeps going down her current path, to which Natalie Kischuk responds with concaved body shapes and frantic running passes.
As for the corps, one at a time the 13 ghostly dancers explode from the stage left corner in a series of petite jete jumps before forming a circle around Kischuk and Ilina. The dancers’ texture of movement changes constantly throughout the section. Springy footwork with linear lines and tight body placement are then followed up with open-chested lunges, rounded arms and delicately positioned feet. And even when they are stationary the dancers continue to send energy out through their fingers and spines. The group’s movement canons and organic shape shifting are enchanced by Cooper’s choice of music. “It is the Waltz of the Snowflakes but performed in a minor making it sound more eerie and creepy which really matches the choreography in this section.”
Clarity was a big talking point for Cooper during the rehearsal. She not only worked with the dancers on technical clarity such as the position of an arm or the spot on a pirouette, but also making sure their intentions are clear when executing a move or gesture. “The goal is you shouldn’t have to read the program notes in order to understand what is happening on stage. You should be able to follow the storyline just from watching the dancers.”
» Katie Dravenstott is a freelance writer and dance instructor in Dallas. Visit her blog at www.kddance.wordpress.com