When the curtain goes up on the Charm City Ballet production of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” for the first of two shows Dec. 16, 84 dancers will be ready to tell the story — sans dialog — of Ebenezer Scrooge’s pathetic past, forlorn present and promising future.
The mission of the dancers, all of whom are unpaid, will be to express the classic holiday story to the audience at the 550-seat Gordon Center for the Performing Arts, in Owings Mills, through movement, using everything from an allégro (brisk steps) or arabesque (one leg extended with a straight knee behind the body) to a pirouette (spinning on one foot).
While the moves are meant to appear to be almost effortless, graceful and fluid, the work that goes into each routine or sequence at the ballet troupe’s Cockeysville studio is significant in terms of time invested, calories burned and muscles worked.
Just ask Madison Bonvissuto, 23, who earned a degree in dance performance and choreography in May from Towson University and is a Charm City Ballet student who will appear in the production.
At a recent rehearsal, Bonvissuto and several of her fellow cast members went over a six-minute sequence at least a half-dozen times as studio owners Pete Commander and Rebecca Friedman assessed the dancers’ moves with a critical but friendly eye.
“I always knew that’s what I wanted to do,” said Bonvissuto, who lives with her parents in Hereford and is a server at the Cheesecake Factory in Towson Town Center. “A lot of people in college end up changing majors, but not me.”
She has wanted to be a dancer for about as long as she can remember and comes from an arts-oriented family that encourages such ambition, she said.
Bonvissuto said that her goal is to dance professionally, so she still takes classes two or three times a week at the studio, plus a weekly rehearsal. In addition to the six-minute routine, her signature moment in “A Christmas Carol” will be an even longer solo piece.
“It takes a lot of stamina to get through a six-to-eight-minute dance,” she said.
That’s why Bonvissuto said that she also takes a yoga class and sometimes does cardio workouts at her gym. Even so, dance practice remains the essential element to honing her craft, she said.
“You only get better at ballet by doing ballet,” she said.
Commander and Friedman, who founded Charm City Ballet in 2015, still do a bit of dancing and will appear briefly in the production.
Friedman was a dance major and a biology minor, and Commander an economics major at Goucher College, although they both studied and performed in the highly regarded dance department, Friedman said.
Although she and Commander spent much of their lives focused on their own performances and dance training, they have chosen now to focus on their roles as company and academy directors, Friedman said. They have plenty else to do while preparing for the production, including directing the dancers and arranging the choreography and the score.
"Though all four of our parents help us in different ways, CCB is a large semiprofessional company and dance school with dozens of volunteers and a large professional theater production crew," Friedman said.
Charm City Ballet offers four separate seven-week classes for ages three through adult for experienced dancers and novices.
"CCB is also unique in that it brings together community dancers from all walks of life to perform together," Friedman said. "We have dancers in our casts who range in age from 8 through the mid-40s and above, and they come together from an array of dance schools and studios and backgrounds. Part of the reason that we decided to secure a home for CCB, and open the academy, was because we have a clear vision of what we know a dance school can and should be."
To complement “A Christmas Carol,” Charm City also boasts a full-length spring production, when the troupe has, in past years, danced “Aladdin” and “Beauty and the Beast.”
Those productions have roles suitable for more mature dancers taking classes as well, such as Sharen Camille.
A musical theater performer who played Maria more than 400 times in a national Broadway tour of “West Side Story,” among many other roles in other productions, movies and television, the Lutherville resident is now married to a neurologist and has a 13-year-old son.
“I’m a little rusty to be doing en pointe [dancing on the tips of the toes] now,” Camille said with a laugh. “But I started doing ballet as a 3-year-old, so it’s a labor of love for me.”
Camille earned the role of Mrs. Cratchitt in “A Christmas Carol” for a third straight year. Both she and Rick Southerland, who plays Scrooge, will rely more on their acting chops than on their dancing prowess in the production.
“The acting part comes more naturally to me now than the dancing part,” Camille said.
Southerland, an assistant professor of dance at Goucher College and president of the National Dance Education Organization, said that his interpretation of the miserly curmudgeon will be by pure gestural mime movement and physical theatre.
“I won’t really dance, using defined ballet vocabulary,” the 46-year-old Towson resident said. “I’m not doing a grand jeté [a big leap] or a pirouette. I’ll be around a lot of people doing pirouettes, but I won’t be doing any. I may jump for joy or fall in fear, but I won’t stylize the movement in the ballet aesthetic. Rather, [I will use] more pedestrian movement with mime.”
Southerland added that he enjoys having the flexibility within a scene to make the characters’ motives appear to be more authentic.
“When you do character work, you have to understand the person you are playing,” he added. “The stage directions are set, but in the context of the scene I get to choose how Scrooge carries himself, responds and reacts to other characters and dancers. It enables me to keep the character alive. I have so much autonomy under Becca and Pete. Often times, they give me the blueprint and then just let me run with it.”
Performances are scheduled for 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. For information go to charmcityballet.com.
This story has been updated.