Dallas — You’re so sneaky, ACB.
I have to laugh at my pre-show social media post that read, “It’s not a Nutcracker! Checking out Avant Chamber Ballet’s A Ballet Christmas Carol tonight.”
Because I was wrong. Kind of.
At Dallas City Performance Hall, Artistic Director Katie Cooper managed to skillfully weave two holiday classics together, even throwing in a third icon from the ballet world. Contemporary choreography blended with classical and neo-classical without feeling disjointed, and the ballet had one of the best uses of a children’s cast in the Metroplex.
The icing on the cake is ACB’s signature offering—live music for every show, this time featuring a string quartet (Sercan Danis and Florence Wang on violin, Dmitry Kustanovich on the viola, and cellist Lesley Clearly) and Saule Garcia on piano. Bryan English arranged music by Ptyor Ilyich Tchiakovsky, Alexander Borodin, and Adolphe Adams for a harmonious score.
Many incarnations of Charles Dickens’ 19th century tale exist in various forms, but all of them follow the same basic structure. The main character treats people (especially employees) horribly, and we see the ill effects on those around him or her. A supernatural event occurs where the lead gets a glimpse of the past and present from a different point of view, culminating in a horrifying look at a future that most decidedly will occur, unless the person changes his or her ways—which does indeed happen.
In ACB’s world, the setting is a ballet school of which Scrooge (Natalie Kischuk) is the ballet mistress. Robin Crachit (Kirsten Conrad) is one of the teachers (or possibly an older student assisting), who never seems to win the praise of her employer, despite the devotion of younger students.
The first thing that stands out amidst the simple set pieces depicting the interior of a dance studio was the remarkable use of the children’s cast. Their inclusion fit seamlessly into the tale, as their well-rehearsed sequence and gleaming recital-like smiles perfectly depicted a class of young children looking to please their teachers.
The second marvel is the sly involvement of all things Nutty, as the children perform to the music of the Polichinelle segment of the Nutcracker. It seems like ballet dancers can never fully tear themselves away from it, because more segments appear. But thankfully no tinkling sugar plums.
As Scrooge views and relishes teenage memories, she and the dancers perform a lovely “Waltz of the Flowers,” and she relives a moment of romance with the adagio from the grand pas de deux. She continues flirting with her crush (Memphis Ballet’s Sergio Masero) while the rest of the ensemble rehearses the Mirliton variation.
But this mash-up party doesn’t just have two stories. Mythologies mix as the supernatural quality of Giselle enters with the Ghost of Christmas Future. A stunning Yulia Ilina enters Scrooge’s home, haunting her with Giselle’s choreography performed to the ballet’s original music.
Ilina and other ghosts return towards the end of the ballet to predict a terrifying future, and the result is glorious. With robe-style white dresses and hair down, the dancers have an Isadora Duncan vibe as they bring a contemporary feel to Cooper’s classical-leaning choreography. While they twirl around the stage and encircle Scrooge in a mystifying whirl, I begin to get the sense of déjà vu, as I wonder where I’ve heard the music.
Then it hits. These Duncan-esque, wili-like creatures haunting a character from classic literature are dancing to Nutcracker’s snow scene music—in a minor key. It’s crossover heaven.
As clever as these elements are, narrative delivery could use some work, mostly in the area of clarity. Following the story relies heavily on ballet pantomime and prior knowledge of the Dickens’ story, and the impetus for Scrooge’s change is unclear. Her sorrow throughout the evening is only shown by holding her hands to her chest while slumping her shoulders and looking down, which gets old after a bit. But the audience never quite sees—in this story—what makes her change, again relying on the original tale.
Ensemble precision is typically lacking a bit, and this show was no exception. The look of classical and neo-classical ballet requires a homogenous look in the ensemble—from the exact height of the arabesque to the specific shape of the arms and the correct tilt of the head—and they’re not quite there. This is another reason why the ghost segment worked so well; a contemporary aesthetic buffers those minute differences.
Individually, they shine. Conrad delivers a jubilant charm with her buoyant allegros, and Kischuk demonstrates enviable extensions. Masero seems a little hesitant at first, but wows everyone with his flawless pirouettes and jumps. Kali Kleiman as the child Scrooge astonishes with her precise shapes that belie her young age.
Like most new ballets, it’ll take some time for this one to reach its full narrative power, but Cooper gets a lot of things right this go around. Let’s hope ACB keeps it in its repertoire.