Fran Ichijo understands that most folks consider “The Nutcracker” the holiday season’s quintessential ballet. But the artistic director of the Poolesville-based Hope Garden Ballet Academy had no intention of being so predictable. Instead, she decided to choreograph a ballet to Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”
“In the D.C. Metro area, there are so many good ‘Nutcrackers,’” Ichijo observed. “So, I thought ‘Why do I want to make another one?’ The story of ‘A Christmas Carol’ has much better content than this little girl having a dream about rats and soldiers. It’s such a great story that I always loved growing up.”
Now in its eighth year, the production is set to take the stage of Rockville’s F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre on Saturday, Nov. 25. Featuring about 70 performers, the cast consists of ballet academy dancers, guest dancers and parents who come in for Mr. Fezziwig’s party scene.
While the choreography basically remains the same each year, Ichijo feels compelled to challenge her own creativity by adding new elements. “I change it up, so the repeat audience gets something new every year,” she said. “That was my determination from early on. I said ‘OK. Either I will do a new dance or a few new steps or have something interesting every year.’ Of course, I can’t keep adding because it is already a two-hour event with a 20-minute intermission included.”
In 2016, she added a “pas de play,” the name Ichijo gave “to the dance where the Spirit of Christmas Present is trying to get Scrooge to play a bit, to lighten up, through a very funny pas de deux,” she said. “It’s really funny. They tease each other. I’m doing that again this year: she (the Spirit) bumps him out of the chair he is trying to sleep in.” She also added a hip-hop dancer to perform at Mr. Fezziwig’s party.
Claire Jones, an academy alumna who is currently with Bowen McCauley Dance in Arlington, Virginia, has played the Ghost of Christmas Future for seven years. “I just fell in love with the role and what it means for the story,” she said. For the 25-year-old, the production is a family affair. Her sister Gracie creates and applies detailed skeleton makeup for the costume, while her parents, Beth Fayard Jones and Jeff Jones, serve as technical directors who build the sets and help out backstage.
Jones started dancing at Hope Garden at about age 5, eventually teaching there for eight years. She comes back every year for the performance and to see how her former students have grown.
Working with Ichijo is a joy for Jones. “Ms. Fran is like an aunt to me,” she said. “…She really is quite the choreographer. She has a unique gift and talent for that and how she tells a story through dance, how she uses the music tell that story. I think the (choreography of the Ghost of Christmas Future) is superbly done–the way she saw it and put it into movement with the music.”
Anna Porch has been in the production for six years. This year, she took on five roles including a caroller, gypsy, maid, holly and doing a “pas de peace” –Ichijo’s name that “represents the innocence and Peace of Christmas, a kind of pure love” during the Ghost of Christmas Present scene. “I really enjoy learning new parts,” the 12-year-old said. “It’s pretty similar choreography every year, but when you learn a new dance, you can really make it yours. It is just interesting throughout the years to see how different people take on different roles.”
Ichijo enjoys seeing her students learn the roles and grow into new ones. “Watching that progress is meaningful to me,” she said. “It’s really heart-warming and I feel it gives my life meaning. Of course, I have a husband and children and grandchildren and that is my true meaning in life, but I am so passionate about ballet. I am never tired of it.
“It’s heart-warming to watch these kids go out (on stage). Sometimes they fall. Stuff happens, but when you are out on stage, you are on your own.”
Valuable lessons are transmitted to her students. “I am always telling them this is how life is,” she said. “You have to be responsible. You have to take whatever comes your way and you have to think on your feet. I always say, ‘This will help you in your life no matter what you do or become whether it is a dancer, a lawyer or a doctor.’ These lessons will stick with you.’’
Hope Garden Children’s Ballet Theatre will present the ballet version of “A Christmas Carol” at 1:30 and 6 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 25, at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre, Rockville Civic Center Park, 603 Edmonston Drive, Rockville. For tickets–$22, $19 for students, children, seniors and military–visit https://fscottfitzgerald.showare.com. Learn more about this performance on CultureSpotMC here.