For many religions, this time of year is about new beginnings. The Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, presses its hands against time preserving the old, while at the same time welcoming the rebirth of the sun.
Since 1998, the Rocky Mountain Ballet Theatre has done its part to add to the holiday tradition in Missoula. A Christmas Jewel, running for its fourth consecutive year, is not only a ballet that celebrates the season, it is also the story of a little girl and her last night on earth. The original ballet was created by Charlene Campbell, artistic director and founder of RMBT, and Montana artist Larry Pirnie, who met when they were both working on Flying Fireworks, a show about the Carousel for Missoula. “The idea for the ballet was born out of collaboration,” Campbell says. “More than anything else, the story is about the birth of an angel. It is less about the death of a child.” Both Campbell and Pirnie lost children who were very young.
Though loosely based on the story of the Little Matchgirl, the ballet is all original. A Christmas Jewel was conceived and choreographed by Campbell, designed by Pirnie, and the music created by Los Angeles composer Albert Potts. This year’s guest artist—dancing the part of the turkey carver—is John Pennington. He is the principal dancer with the Bella Lewitsky Company of Los Angeles. For the last three summers, he has been a guest teacher at RMBT.
“I have always collaborated with visual artists and directors,” says Campbell, who moved to Missoula with her filmmaker husband in 1998 to start the ballet theatre and school. “I worked with Karen Carreno [RMBT’s music director] in Los Angeles and asked her to come to Missoula with me to start the school. I never had any intention of starting a ballet school and theatre without having live music. A ballerina needs to train her ear as well as her body. It’s crucial. A lot of our ballets are set to live music. That’s the tradition, after all.”
A Christmas Jewel starts in the little girl’s hospital room. She has a vision of an angel and makes the choice to follow that vision. “The story is really about Faith’s journey to become an angel, but there is no specific epiphany or moment or turning point in the story. It’s more a joyful progression,” Campbell says. Along the way, during her Christmas eve night, Faith dances with toys roller blading in the toy shop, she meets up with a dancing mouse, a rat, and a squirrel, and then with a turkey and turkey carver. At the end, on her way to join the other angels, she dances with the planets and the stars A Christmas Jewel is the literal dance of a girl during her last night on earth. Her adventures are a child’s experience with friendship, love, and life on earth. Through the ballet, she and the characters around her realize that love and friendship can transcend the confines of the secular world. People live in the hearts of those they have touched long after their physical self is no longer here.
A Christmas Jewel has been performed on many a stage in Missoula, including the Wilma and the Montana Children’s Theatre. This year, with more dancers than ever, the show will be performed at the Montana Theatre on the University of Montana campus. “Every year, Charlene changes and tweaks the show a bit,” says Carreno. “I think our audiences always leave pleasantly surprised. The ballet itself is fun, but it is also very professional.”
For local ballet dancers, dancing A Christmas Jewel is something to work toward. “The little kids might start out in the roller blading toy shop scene and over the years as they improve and grow as dancers, they might take on one of the more demanding roles,” says Carreno. The RMBT school is open to students ages 3 to adult. It is for the amateur dancer as well as for those more professionally minded.
Once the holiday season has passed, RMBT will be concentrating on performing for audiences far beyond Missoula. In June 2002, a group from the RMBT will be traveling to Austria to perform with the Tanzsommer Tour in Innsbruck, Vienna, and Saltzburg.
“We were chosen to be one of the five American groups to do the tour,” says Campbell. The RMBT group of 35 will include 12 dancers from 13 to 16 years of age. “The Austrians will get different programs every other night. One night they’ll get the big guns, which this year is Alvin Ailey, and on the alternative nights they will get the “stars of tomorrow,” dancers from the five American dance troupes.” RMBT will be performing their original ballet, Bugs, a contemporary ballet set to live music from The Matrix and Men in Black.
“We are cutting our own niche,” said Campbell. “We are becoming the company that does jazz on pointe. It’s all very exciting.”