Dallas — Avant Chamber Ballet finds yet another way to have a holiday show without solely relying on traditional Christmas narratives. David Lang’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work The Little Match Girl Passion provides a unique collaboration with Verdigris Ensemble, founded by Sam Brukhman, and the two groups bring the haunting story to Dallas audiences at the Moody Performance Hall.
But first, a little nuttiness. Cooper brings back a minimalist version of The Nutcracker, which uses select songs from Pyotr Tchiakovsky’s score. She combines her choreography with that of Paul Mejia to start the show with a bit of holiday cheer. Accompanying the dancers is the Cezanne Quartet. After the overture, the curtain opens on eight dancers in red and white short dresses with a large backdrop covering the top portion of cyc, depicting the bottom of a Christmas tree.
A cutesy ensemble section to the familiar march leads into the Chinese Tea, an impressive duet featuring Madelaine Boyce and Towa Shinagawa. The technical feats continue with the Marzipan section and Juliann McAloon’s piques and fouettes. An Arabian solo with Natalie Kischuk and sprightly Candy Cane variation with Melissa Meng and a student cast keep the flavors going.
“Waltz of the Flowers” provides an interesting twist. Remarkable execution for the corps livens up the segment, but it’s Eugene Barnes’ performance that proves most interesting. As the Dew Drop, his choreography falls more in line with the usual female steps, but his performance of it doesn’t appear feminine. Leaps are included, but not the typical ones found in male allegros. Emily Dixon Alba continues the excellence with the Sugar Plum Fairy variation, then the cast delivers a precise, explosive apotheosis.
The mood abruptly changes for Act II and the feature work of the evening. The storyline and much of the libretto for Lang’s work comes from Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the same title, in which a young girl attempting to sell matches freezes to death on New Year’s Eve, unnoticed by the rest of the world until she passes. In keeping with the minimal aesthetic of the score, Brukhman’s ensemble dons solid black and enters barefoot. Beginning in front of the main drape, they sing, accompanied only by a bass drum.
The curtain rises for the start of the second section, and the singers move upstage. Dancers in black long-sleeved leotards and black leggings enter and maneuver through a series of starts and stops. Vocabulary is quite simple, closer to modern dance than ballet, with McAloon as the titular character displaying the most traditional lines and steps. At times the other dancers act as unobservant characters, while other areas have them mimicking the energy of the story. Overall, they’re as much a part of the commentary as the vocalists, stoic and serious, all the while delivering stunning, precise unison segments.
Black benches shape the space for various scenes. Old-fashioned light bulbs hang from the rafters, which only brighten when McAloon “lights” a match, conjuring her imaginary settings before she dies. One of those settings includes her late grandmother, danced by Alba. The two create picturesque moments with exquisite partnering. Visuals change slightly when the dancers re-enter the stage in white robe dresses for the death of the match girl.
The musicians move during certain segments, making them as much a part of the choreography as the accompaniment. Occasionally, one will lightly play a percussion instrument, giving a sense of dread to the story.
Running approximately one and a half hours, the show is an intriguing viewing experience. Instead of ending on a high note, like many mixed repertoire dance concerts do, the performance delivers a grim finale. The stark contrast between acts takes some time to process, and the intricacies of the second work require quite a bit of contemplation. It’s a far cry from most of ACB’s repertoire.
The collaboration proves a bold endeavor, and all artists involved rise to the challenge, presenting an impeccable, cohesive work.