With the holiday season in full swing, area dance companies are doing their best to help spread some Christmas cheer, from dancing mice to dancing dolls to dancing snowflakes and, yes, even dancing reindeer!
While many whose holiday festivities include a trip to the ballet are familiar with most of the aforementioned dancing oddities, the reindeer may be new for some. But, given their iconic association with Christmas and a certain portly fellow in a red suit, I am surprised they have been slighted by so many.
The hoofed hoofers debuted six years ago in Providence Ballet Theatre’s Twas the Night Before Christmas, a charming, original production by artistic director Eva Marie Pacheco. Based on Clement Clarke Moore’s poem of the same name, the ballet does, however, feature far more than just dancing reindeer.
Recently, I had the opportunity to watch the troupe rehearse in their West Side headquarters, a cozy little firehouse transformed into a dance studio. The converted building delightfully pays homage to its past: Two old fireman boots hold open a studio door and an old fireman jacket hangs on a wall above the mirrors; but, alas, there is no fireman’s pole!
The actual dance space gets tight at times. It is rectangular in shape versus the typical square shape, which affords equal width and depth, but the dancers expertly manage their surroundings; occasionally Ms. Pacheco calls out for them to make their entrances “even wider” to account for the bigger stage.
In fact, Ms. Pacheco talks frequently throughout the rehearsal, stopping the music to make corrections, “There are a lot of things you guys can do to make your lives easier,” she notes at one point. There is a remarkable back and forth between she and the dancers. She has a very laid back way of addressing them while still getting her point across. In return, the dancers freely express their ideas and concerns.
With the show still more than three weeks away, much of the day was spent “cleaning up.” Though the ballet runs a little over an hour and a half, the two-hour rehearsal was devoted to two 10-minute scenes: the sugarplum dream sequence: “The children were nestled all snug in their beds, While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads,” and a snow scene: “The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow.”
Ms. Pacheco explains, “Each year I try to make changes but remain true to the original concept … but it is much different than our first year.” In addition to creating the choreography, she pieced together all the music using selections from Prokofiev, Debussy and Messager. The dancing assumes a very lyrical quality when paired with the music, especially during the snow scene set to a gentle waltz by Prokofiev.
Reminiscent of wintery scene from a postcard, the snow scene, which takes place in a park, is a flurry of activity. Dancers come and go, some gracefully tracing the air with their arms trying to catch snowflakes. Other times, they skate across the stage, arms interlocking and turning in dizzying circles. After one of several run-throughs, Ms. Pacheco declares, “Good, almost there. Can we try it again?” The dancers, breathing heavy, take their places.
But, Ms. Pacheco is not one who just sits and shouts out corrections. She frequently leaves her chair to join the dancers and demonstrate what she is looking for. Other times, she shuts off the music and works with pairs of dancers continually counting to eight – eight measures or beats are the foundation for all choreography.
The dancing in both the scenes is fast, a true test of the dancers’ stamina. “The ballet really moves,” notes Ms. Pacheco. Despite its quick pace, the choreography has a fun, pleasant flow and works perfectly with the musical selections. At one point, the sound of sleigh bells fills the studio while pairs of dancers slide across the stage.
In a nod to the ballet’s literary roots, the performance begins with a narrator sitting in a large, oversized chair in front of the stage reading Moore’s poem. Once again Bruce Newbury, the host of “Dining Out with Bruce Newbury,” will do the honors. As the stage brightens, the poem springs to life.
Providence Ballet Theatre’s production of “Twas the Night Before Christmas” will run for one night, December 18, at Roberts Hall on the Rhode Island College Campus. For tickets or more information visit ProvidenceBallet.org.