I remember my first Nutcracker Ballet. I was maybe eight or nine years old, and my family had driven our wood-paneled Dodge station wagon from North Carolina to West Palm Beach, playing a Beatles 8-track the whole way, to visit some family friends who had recently moved there. Swanky Palm Beach in December was exotic enough—cruising down fancy boulevards lined with sparkling palm trees inlaid with white lights, eating grapefruit straight from our friends' backyard trees. Getting dressed up to go to a Christmas ballet was just icing on the Florida fruitcake.
The Nutcracker is a rite of passage for a young girl, and one I dutifully ensured my own three girls experienced when they were young little dancers. We'd buy the pricey Sunday matinee tickets, put on our green-and-red plaid Christmas finery, and go to the now-demolished Gaillard to see the production that the now-kaput Charleston Ballet Theater put on each year. Then, inevitably, we'd get stuck in traffic and spend an hour trying to get home, as the Mount Pleasant Christmas Parade always coincided with Nutcracker Sunday. Ba humbug.
My girls have now outgrown the Nutcracker (and I've long tired of Mouse King antics), but thankfully my youngest daughter was still game for a holiday music-and-dance outing, so we checked out the world premiere of The Little Match Girl last weekend at the Rose Maree Myers Theatre in North Charleston. Wow.
It was a sopping wet evening, dreary and bleak, but once inside the theatre, creative collaboration worked its magic, warming our damp and chilled bodies, igniting our hearts and imaginations. Far from the cliched glitz and over-the-top battles and sugar plum dreams that carry on in the Nutcracker, The Little Match Girl is a slim and grim pas de deux of despair and hope, and the original score created and directed by the wildly talented Laura Ball is subtle, elegant, and sophisticated. Think John Cage meets Aaron Copeland, rather than a rollicking, flashy Tchiakovsky number. The choreography by Jonathan Tabbert was similarly understated, but beautifully executed by young local dancers. I especially loved watching the expressive face of Sarah Masser who danced the part of the Match Girl, and whose eyes arabesqued as beautifully as her body did. Equally elequoent in her dancing abilities, Kay George as "Flame" lit up the stage.
But in my book, the music really carried the show. Laura Ball, a self-avowed "Noisemaker," is known for her fresh compositions and innovative collaborations with her UNED!TED series (read more about her in this Charleston Magazine profile), but I confess I'd not heard her work before. That will change going forward.
Ball not only played piano while directing the musicians from Chamber Music Charleston, she taught me what snow sounds like. Truly. I thought it was just a wet, white hush, but actually it sounds delicate, ephemeral, crystaline, playful, light, full of briskness and wonder and soul—and not the least bit flakey under Ball's care. On stage the sound of snowfall was accompanied by lovely glistening snow drops drifting down from on high, thanks to set designer Buchannan Arts, and on pointe ballerinas gracefully swirling. As my friend Molly would say, "it made me smile."
In the wake of the city's defunct ballet company, undaunted young artists like Ball and Tabbert have not only filled a void in the Christmas arts calendar, they are infusing Charleston with bold creative energy year-round. They are matches, not afraid of a little friction and eager to spark new artistic fires. In this Hans Christian Anderson tale, the Little Match Girl dies, succumbing to cold and poverty, but here in Charleston, she has enlivened the holidays anew. Let's make sure our local artists in this new year don't suffer her fate. It's warm and cozy here by the creative fire, so let's keep it stoked.
And hey, if you are still having serious Nutcracker withdrawal, no fear. Here's my little holiday gift to you: a vintage clip of one of the most rousing Nutcracker finales in the long history of the famed ballet. A Nutcracker classic to be sure, circa 1995 at the Hunt Theatre. Buckle your seatbelts: