If you want to see a holiday ballet, you’ve usually got only one choice — and it involves a Rat King, a little girl, and a magical Nutcracker Prince. This year, however, there’s another option available, and it was created right here in Charleston.
Jonathan Tabbert, co-founder of the Charleston Dance Institute, and composer Laura Ball of the UNED!TED concert series started working together earlier this year to create an original ballet of “The Little Match Girl” by Hans Christian Andersen.
The story is a timeless tale of the resilience of the human spirit. A young girl is selling matches, barefoot in the snow on the last day of the year. Alone, freezing, and unable to sell a single match, the little match girl huddles into a corner to stay warm. She lights a single match, holding its tiny flame cupped in her palms, and there, in the flickering of the flame, she is able to escape her reality for a fleeting moment.
Before founding the Charleston Dance Institute, Tabbert was a principal dancer and company teacher at the Charleston Ballet Theatre, which shut down earlier this year. Tabbert met Ball when she was spending time as an accompanist for the ballet school, and they immediately hit it off.
“At first it was hard to get everybody on the exact same emotional landscape,” says Ball, who was initially drawn to the fantastical scenes of the story. But as their collaboration continued, the duo found that their working styles complemented each other well. With a shared passion for education and creating new works, both artists feel poised to bring music and ballet to the next generation of artists and audience members.
“Making ballet accessible is really what is going to change the whole outlook on dance in a community,” Tabbert says. “It is relevant for everyone’s lives.” And a ballet like The Little Match Girl is the perfect vehicle to facilitate this learning process.
The students of the Charleston Youth Ballet, ranging in age from 12 to 19, have been presented with the rare opportunity to work alongside both Tabbert and Ball in the creation of this new ballet, music for which will be performed by musicians of Chamber Music Charleston. “‘You are the first people to hear this music,'” Tabbert told his students on the first day of rehearsal. “That is when they started to realize how special this moment would be in their lives. This is something that very few dancers in their whole lives will experience.”
The story of “The Little Match Girl” focuses on a single main character, but Tabbert and Ball’s ballet has expanded the cast to include a host of characters both real and fantastical. As the lead, danced by 14-year-old Sarah Masser, lights each new match, she is visited by a fiery flame whose dancing draws the little match girl through vision after vision. She encounters children in the snow-dusted streets and peeks through the windows of lighted rooms to see families enjoying their holiday dinner. Tabbert’s imagination and Ball’s musical score bring to life smoldering coals dancing on the hearth, a human-sized turkey dancing on a table, and the requisite holiday snow scene of swirling snowflakes.
“The thing that cemented our vision was the message of hope and love and humanity, the idea that everyone has an imagination. It is this that stuck with me the most,” Tabbert says of the creative process of bringing The Little Match Girl to life.
Ball agrees. “Substance seems to have fallen out of popularity, but if substance is done well and cooperatively, you have the opportunity to impact people,” she says. “At the end of the day art is about touching people’s hearts.”