Ballet Tennessee’s New Take On A Christmas Carol

Saturday, December 13, 2003 - by Bart Whiteman

In a country that is running the serious risk of bludgeoning Christmas into an early retail death, with Christmas decorations shamelessly beginning to appear around July 4th, it is always encouraging to see someone step up to the plate to give the little be-tinseled and be-tousled holiday a new lift. In the performing world, most dance companies drag out their dusty version of The Nutcracker, theatre companies drag out their version of A Christmas Carol, and recording artists lay down a few tracks of the old standards usually in August, although some will give it another shot at trying to unseat Bing Crosby’s White Christmas from the perennial yuletide throne.

Ballet Tennessee, never fearful of taking a fresh look at things, has developed a dance version of Charles Dickens’ classic novel A Christmas Carol, which they just presented at Memorial Auditorium. It’s a yarn that has led the way for over a century in attempting to define the true spirit of Christmas past, present, and future. It’s the story of the conversion or redemption of one very lost soul named Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserly business mogul, who has apparently littered our corporate landscape with countless direct descendants. (George Steinbrenner, take note.) Scrooge, whose very name now defines a whole class of people, and who has given us the ever memorable instant analysis gem of “Bah! Humbug!” has surrendered his heart to the worship and accumulation of the almighty dollar, or pound, since the story was originally English. (I guess now, to be enviably correct, we should say “the almighty Euro.”)

Scrooge, who at the beginning of the story barely celebrates Christmas at all any more, is eventually disarmed and has his spiritual shackles removed by encounters with a series of nocturnal specters led by one Marley his deceased ex-partner, who never learned while alive the lesson he wishes to impart to his former colleague. Can Scrooge be saved from the same fate? Is there still a glimmering ember under the ashes of his life? In the course of one very long Christmas Eve, Scrooge must face and answer questions that many men will wrestle with for a lifetime.

This is the second time that Ballet Tennessee has staged this dance version of A Christmas Carol, and one can only hope that it will return again and that many more people will get to see it. As we celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first airplane flight, it should be remembered that the innovative duo visited Kitty Hawk, North Carolina for four years of experimentation before they at last got off the ground. When they finally did, only a handful of people witnessed one of the most momentous occasions in the entire history of mankind, so when local arts producers suffer through nights of low attendance, they need to take heart in the possibility of what lies ahead.

Ballet Tennessee’s choreography and staging, provided by Barry Van Cura and Anna Baker-Van Cura, another innovative duo, includes the company’s signature elements of consistent layering and tiering of components, as well as a sense that no person onstage is simply taking up space. There is really no apparent hierarchy between guest artists, company members, and dance students who comprise the large cast. Each member of the ensemble is included and has an integral part in telling the story. No one is up there just to be seen by their parents. It is this attention to detail, as well as granting each cast member the right and privilege to contribute an essential piece of the whole endeavor that gives Ballet Tennessee a distinctive place in Chattanooga’s arts line-up. Other local companies should take be taking notes.

Remarkably enough, A Christmas Carol could be a similarly consistent Christmas staple with The Nutcracker, and provide countless ballet companies some variety in their seasonal offering. Both stories are established classics. Both stories provide a large cast vehicle to show off every member of the company and dance classes right down to the rehearsal room janitor. Both stories have a similar structure whereby new insight into the spirit of Christmas, and therefore life, is given to a needful individual (Scrooge and Clara, respectively) via the mechanism of a “trip” or journey of metamorphosis where pretty much anything goes with regard to the possibilities for choreography and dazzle. The one thing that A Christmas Carol lacks is its own score. The Nutcracker had Tchaikovsky to deliver one memorable motif and segment after another. In fact, there really is not much plot evident at all. A Christmas Carol had Dickens, the all-time plot master and practically the inventor of the novel. But Ballet Tennessee had to use a composite score of familiar Christmas carols and cuts from other ballet works. Is there a composer waiting in the wings? With a tweak or two this baby could fly around the world.

So, when you see a photo or replica of the Wright brothers’ first proto-type, think Concorde or 747. Think moon landing. They are one and the same. Ballet Tennessee’s A Christmas Carol could have similar wings.

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