Friday, 01 December 2017 15:42

Christmas Present: GR Ballet’s 'A Christmas Carol' weaves together original choreography and score

Written by  Kayla Tucker
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Christmas Present: GR Ballet’s 'A Christmas Carol' weaves together original choreography and score Photo by Seth Thompson

A Christmas Carol has taken many forms, but a two-day run with Grand Rapids Ballet will be one of the most unique by far.

Brian Enos, artistic director of The Big Muddy Dance Company, is choreographing the show, and described it as a mixture of classic ballet and contemporary dance. Twenty dancers will share the stage with a group of musicians, including members of the Grand Rapids Symphony, playing music arranged specifically for this performance.

Enos said that in creating the choreography, he started with the characters and built from there. 

“That sort of drove everything,” Enos said. “Exploring who the characters were, what their backstory was, making that up so I can use that to draw on as I’m creating movements. And all that kind of stuff is information that might never leave the depths of my brain, but it helps to build more layers of character to each of the cast members.”

The music composition itself is one of the most interesting and organic parts of the show, as composer Brendan Hollins is arranging the score himself based on Tchaikovsky's music. 

“He’s taking bits and pieces from all different Tchaikovsky things and putting them all together, so he’s essentially scoring the ballet from scratch,” Enos said. 

This gives Enos more flexibility in working with Hollins to adjust the length of the scenes and speed of the music together. Hollins and Enos have developed a rapport, having first worked together on Alice in Wonderland last year.

“Generally, I offer a scene to him and we decide if it works and trim or extend it as necessary,” Hollins said. “After Alice, it’s been really refreshing to get back to the romantic and lush orchestration of Tchaikovsky. Since A Christmas Carol has much smaller scenes than his popular works like Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, I have focused on his miniatures and chamber music. 

“So much of (Tchaikovsky’s) music is overshadowed by his most famous works, and there are truly exquisite pieces largely unheard by the concert-going public. The string quartets, for example, contain some beautiful themes which fit this ballet very well. In addition, the piano quintet is a beautifully versatile ensemble perfectly suited to tell this story, and I look forward to performing with these gifted musicians.”

As the story moves along, a light will follow the dancers to show a difference in scene onstage, while the symphony will stay in a corner stage left. 

“From a dancer’s perspective, it’s nice to have the energy of live musicians,” Enos said. “It’s something that a lot of companies don’t do.”

As for the costumes and set, the company is sticking to the Victorian-era traditions of the story.

“They’re repurposing a lot of costumes that were from an older, retired production of Nutcracker,” Enos said. “So they’re taking a bunch of existing costumes and giving them new life and gussying them up for this production. Because it’s placed in the Victorian era, having costumes that sort have a ‘lived-in’ feel already — I think it’s going to work really well.”

However, it can be a shocking difference dancing in a leotard versus a full-fledged Victorian costume. Enos said there’s always a challenging period where dancers have to get used to the extra weight of costumes, and sometimes he has to make adjustments for them as well. 

“One of the characters has a massive coat that he wears, but the dance that he does is all really fast. … So some things needed to be adjusted to make it a bit more manageable,” Enos said. “We try as much as possible — like if the women are going to be in long skirts, they will have long rehearsal skirts so that it’s not too big of a jump when they get their actual costumes.”

Enos said the show is definitely warm and Christmasy, and one for the whole family. 

“The story is kind of the reason we celebrate Christmas,” Enos said. “It’s a great story to bring people together and to just show the good in humanity and getting over yourself, and getting over whatever your hangups are and just coming together as a family over a special occasion. That sense of togetherness, it’s a really special story.”

A Christmas Carol
Grand Rapids Ballet
Peter Martin Wege Theatre
341 Ellsworth Ave. SW, Grand Rapids
Dec. 22-23, $46
grballet.com, (616) 454-4771

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