Katie Cooper, the artistic director of Avant Chamber Ballet, had never attended a choral performance until she went to Verdigris Ensemble’s “The Consolation of Apollo” at the UT Arlington Planetarium in April. That innovative performance planted the seeds for Avant Chamber Ballet’s current collaboration with Verdigris Ensemble, David Lang’s “The Little Match Girl Passion” playing at Moody Performance Hall in the Dallas Arts District on December 7 and 8.
When Sam Brukhman, Verdigris Ensemble’s artistic director, suggested the piece that won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Music, Cooper initially hesitated. Although the ballet company uses live chamber music for all performances, the company had never worked with a choir and she was not familiar with the music.
“You can’t just choreograph to everything,” Cooper said, recalling the first time she listened to the piece and realized the possibilities. “Some pieces of music, I hear, and I immediately visualize choreography.”
Once Brukhman and Cooper were on the same page artistically, the collaboration formed naturally.
“It’s always very open. It’s very easy to communicate and it feels like a true team,” Brukhman said. “There’s an appreciation for reaching for the stars and an appreciation for thinking big without feeling overly overwhelmed.”
The two artistic directors realized their companies are kindred spirits, both wanting to create a different holiday performance.
“I think we both step out of the box. We’re both young organizations so I feel like both of our groups take a lot of risks,” Cooper said. “We are both down for doing things in a different way.”
“The Little Match Girl Passion” is based on Hans Christian Anderson’s fable of a little girl forced to sell matches on a frigid New Year’s Eve. Unsuccessful in selling her humble wares, she lights matches to stay warm, conjuring up memories of family and past happy Christmas celebrations. She slowly freezes to death, ignored by passersby. Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion” influenced Lang, with the impoverished girl’s distress substituting Jesus’ suffering.
“The main point here doesn’t lie in the Little Match Girl. It lies in the people around her, the fact that they didn’t notice her or that they didn’t do anything to help her,” Brukhman said.
It’s a theme relevant to homelessness, genocide or any situation where a community’s silence and deliberate ignorance is fatal. For the hectic holiday season, it is a haunting reminder to reach out to the less fortunate.
The modern piece offers a creative opportunity to collaborate and to elevate those relevant themes.
“The beauty of it is you can add dance, you can add staging, you can add all of these different aspects and make it your own while still keeping true to what the music is,” Brukhman said.
Musically, Brukhman, who is conducting the work, must strike a balance between the music’s demanding rhythm and the expressive musicality of the piece. Too much emotion can derail the rhythmic pulse of the music. If sung in a strictly rhythmic manner, the power of the story is lost. “The greatest challenge we have musically is giving the story,” he said.
Cooper is choreographing the piece. “Rhythmically for us, it is not an easy piece,” she said. “You’re not dancing to a piano score. You’re dancing to someone singing so that has breath and that’s a little different anticipation than what we’re used to with an orchestra or string quartet. That’s taught my dancers to really open their ears.”
This concert is a different experience for singers as well. To avoid tracking dirt onto the dance floor, the chorus will not wear shoes. Cooper is also developing staging for the singers.
“The choir serves as an extension of what the dancers are expressing visually,” Brukhman said. “Without giving too much away, the choir serves as characters in the story.”
Cooper explains the choreography for the piece has developed organically and the process of creating this distinctive experience for audiences has been fun. She credits the strength of the core material. “When you have a great piece of music, great things come out of it,” she said.