Move over, Sugar Plum Fairy, and make room on the holiday stage for a dancing Scrooge.
Avant Chamber Ballet this week premieres A Ballet Christmas Carol, a wordless dance version of the famous Dickens Christmas tale. Performances take place Thursday and Friday at Dallas City Performance Hall in the Dallas Arts District.
Ballet in the title is telling, as ballet is also the theme of the production.
“I’m always thinking of different holiday shows we do that aren’t The Nutcracker,” says ACB founder and artistic director Katie Puder, a former Metropolitan Classical Ballet dancer whose growing company is now in its fourth season. “There aren’t many [ballets of] A Christmas Carol, and those are strict with the Dickens version.”
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In her version, instead of Scrooge being a miserly old man, the character is a woman who is a “classically mean ballet teacher,” Puder says. “She’s mean to students and dancers; all the dancers can connect to that.”
Most of the other major characters are represented in some way. Scrooge (played by Natalie Kischuk on Thursday and Kaitlyn McDermitt on Friday) is haunted by the past, present and future. The Nutcracker comes into play in the past sequence, as does her first crush (a la Scrooge and Belle in the novella).
In the present, she sees her students talking about her when she’s not there, led by teaching assistant Robin Cratchit. The Jacob Marley character is a very famous ballet role from her past. There’s no Fezziwig character, nor a Tiny Tim.
“I played with that idea [of Tiny Tim],” Puder says, “With every story ballet I’ve done, I make it complicated, and I write out my libretto. Sometimes the purer they are the easier it is to map out. I thought about making Robin a single mom with a kid, but that didn’t work.”
Music, played live by a piano quintet (including a violist from the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra), consists of arrangements of Tchaikovsky’s string quartets plus some quotes from The Nutcracker. These are worked out by ACB music director David Cooper, who is the principal horn player in the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Puder’s husband.
Tradition of live music
Live music is in Avant Chamber Ballet’s mission. Puder grew up in the Wichita Falls area and became an apprentice of what was then called Fort Worth Dallas Ballet (now Texas Ballet Theater). At 17, she was hired to dance with Ballet Arlington, which soon changed its name to Metropolitan Classical Ballet and was led by Balanchine protégé Paul Mejia, former artistic director of Fort Worth Dallas Ballet.
When MCB folded in the recession, Texas Ballet Theater had temporarily stopped using live music. Puder saw an opening. She began Avant with mixed-repertory programs choreographed by her and the company members — many of them from MCB as well — in various spaces around the Metroplex, including Grapevine. That first season, she says, they scraped together $5,000 and paid small combos of musicians.
The budget for the second season grew to $20,000, and then $50,000 for season three, which was performed at the Eisemann Center in Richardson. Now there’s a company of 18 dancers and a budget of $120,000, and performances take place at Dallas City Performance Hall.
The season includes Puder’s full-length ballet of Alice in Wonderland and a signature event for the company, the Women’s Choreography Project, which brings together local and national female choreographers.
For A Ballet Christmas Carol, she says, ticket sales are on track to double their previous most popular show.
Puder describes Avant’s brand of classical ballet as American, as opposed to the British style of TBT, which makes sense considering that TBT artistic director Ben Stevenson came from the Royal Ballet tradition.
“You think of British people as polite and perfect, and that’s how their ballet is,” she says. “Americans, we’re brash, don’t always get everything right. Balanchine was inspired by jazz and the way we take big steps and are always in a hurry to get somewhere. With the Royal Ballet, it’s perfect with lines and such. If you look at New York City Ballet, sometimes those dancers aren’t as perfect, but there’s so much energy.”
For the record, Avant also puts on an annual, one-night performance in November called Nutcracker: Short and Suite in Southlake, which mostly consists of selections from the second act of the full-length ballet.
Puder says that sometime in the future, she would like to do her own version of The Nutcracker, and rotate it with holiday performances of A Ballet Christmas Carol and some other holiday folktales she has in mind but won’t divulge yet.
If that happens, expect her full-length The Nutcracker to be as different from the original E.T.A. Hoffmann story as her Christmas Carol is from Dickens.
God bless us, everyone.
A Ballet Christmas Carol
- 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday
- Dallas City Performance Hall, 2520 Flora St.
- 214-871-5000; avantchamberballet.org