Dallas — As one of the hardest working female choreographers in Dallas, Katie Cooper is always looking for new ways to elevate the local ballet bar and increase exposure of the 300-year-old art form. She did it when she started her company, Avant Chamber Ballet, with the goal of bringing ballet and live music back together; when she created the area’s first Women’s Choreography Project; and now she is doing it again with the addition of live vocals courtesy of Dallas-based Verdigris Ensemble at ACB’s showing of The Little Match Girl Passion Dec. 7-8 Moody Performance Hall.
The dancers of ACB and the singers of Verdigris Ensemble will be bringing to life David Lang’s choral setting based on Hans Christian Anderson’s story, “The Little Match Girl.”
The collaboration marks a new challenge for Cooper who is known for breaking boundaries when it comes to classical ballet traditions. “Creating dance to almost acapella voice is a much different process than what I have done in the past,” Cooper says. “It has breath to it in a very literal way, plus David Lang’s score is quite modern and tells the story in a very different way than if I had picked more traditional dance music for the choreography.”
The task has also proved challenging for some of the dancers such as Emily Dixon Alba who told me during our phone conversation earlier this week that the Verdigris Ensemble recording they were using in rehearsals sounded a lot like Charlie Brown’s teacher at first. “But then the more I listened to the recording the more words I heard.” Alba notes that the lyrics will be printed in the program for the audience to follow along.
Alba also points out that the movement in The Little Match Girl Passion isn’t what you’d typically expect from ACB. “It’s abstract in terms of dancing, but it’s literal in terms of all of us dancers are flushing out the story around Julianne McAloon who is playing main character. So, we’re all in black and we’re all becoming the words that are being said For example, in one part we are walking across the stage really fast and we are supposed to resemble the street cars that she’s trying to dodge around.”
A native Texan, Alba trained at the Ballet Academy of Texas under the direction of Lisa Slagle before joining Tulsa Ballet II after graduating from high school. In 2009, Alba was accepted into the corps de ballet with The Sarasota Ballet. During her five seasons with the company Alba had the opportunity to perform a wide variety of repertoire, including works by Sir Frederick Ashton, George Balanchine, Matthew Bourne, Dominic Walsh, Peter Darrell, Agnes De Mille, Johan Kobborg, to name a few.
Alba was with Colorado Ballet while also guesting with ACB till her move to Dallas in 2017 to dance full time with ACB in addition to settling down with her husband and being closer to family and friends. Alba says making the decision was terrifying as she had spent the last 10 years with union companies where she had no fear about salary or health insurance. But Alba says Cooper wooed her with the repertoire she had planned, which included works by Balanchine and Christopher Wheeldon.
“I remember looking at ACB’s season and then looking at Colorado Ballet’s season coming up that year and it was a no brainer as to where I wanted to dance,” Alba says. “Looking at ACB’s season and what they were bringing in I wanted to see what my full potential was and be pushed to do that, and I knew this repertoire would do it.”
She adds, “Just in this one year I feel like I have grown and the company has grown. I feel like we have been pushed in ways you may not pushed in a company that has 30 or 40 people in it.”
One of Alba’s brightest moments with the company so far was when she was asked to perform one of the principal roles in Balanchine’s Who Cares? at ACB and Dark Circles Contemporary Dance’s joint performance in the spring of 2016. Alba says she still gets emotional every time she performs the role because there was a time in her career where she didn’t think she was capable of dancing a principal role. “I had reached a place where I thought I was a great demi soloist and soloist, but I cut myself from ever being able to do the bigger roles. So, when Katie asked me to come in and guest in Who Cares? I was half terrified because I had already told myself I was below that principal role, but then I was also excited to get a chance to tackle it.”
Alba continues, “And so that was such a victory for me not so much physically, but mentally and emotionally pulling through Who Cares? because it was one of those moments where you realize WOW there is more in me then I thought there was and that gave me a lot of confidence to come back the next year.”
Alba also links her increase of self-confidence to her time spent with local Balanchine Repetiteur Michele Gifford during rehearsals for Who Cares? “For the past two to three years Michele has been one of my dearest mentors on and off the stage. I can talk to her about anything. She helped me navigate my move back and just getting to work one on one with her through all of the Wheeldon and Balanchine works has been amazing.”
I couldn’t end the interview without asking Alba how she feels about portraying such a sad story right around the holidays. “Well, at first I was confused about why we were doing such a sad story, but I read a recent interview of Katie and it brought to light again that Katie is always reaching beyond what’s normal and I think there is an audience that actually connects to grief in the holidays.”
She adds, “The holidays can also evoke a different side of emotions. It is not wrong to feel grief or loss and that is not a bad thing. That is being human. And so I think Katie is going to connect with a side of the audience that is very real and very human through this experience.”
You can see Emily Dixon Alba in The Little Match Girl Passion at the Moody Performance Hall this weekend. The evening also includes The Nutcracker Suite choreographed by Katie Cooper and Paul Mejia with live music by Cezanne Quartet.
» Katie Dravenstott is a freelance writer and dance instructor in Dallas. Visit her blog at www.kdddance.wordpress.com