A holiday favorite returns to a San Luis Obispo stage this weekend, thanks to the combined efforts of a Central Coast dance legend and his former prima ballerina.
Ballet Theatre San Luis Obispo will present “A Christmas Carol” — once considered a signature piece for the Gilbert Reed Ballet — Saturday and Sunday at the Spanos Theatre.
“I’m really excited for the public to see ‘A Christmas Carol,’ ” said Theresa Slobodnik, the company’s artistic director. “It’s something that everyone can embrace.”
Created in 2003, Ballet Theatre San Luis Obispo has a history of original holiday productions.
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“The 12 Days of Christmas,” the company’s mainstay for five winters, took its inspiration from the Christmas carol. Last year, the dance company performed “The Velveteen Rabbit,” based on Margery Williams’ beloved children’s book.
Slobodnik, who choreographed both pieces, said the time had come to tackle her mentor’s most famous ballet.
Gilbert Reed originally created a shorter version of “A Christmas Carol” as artistic director of Minnesota Ballet in the 1970s, basing his story on Charles Dickens’ classic tale of love, loss and redemption in Victorian London.
Decades later, he created a full-length version for the Gilbert Reed Ballet in San Luis Obispo, set to the music of George Frederic Handel. The company made “A Christmas Carol” a seasonal staple during its 10-year run.
“When I grew up, we considered that was the great Christmas story,” Reed said of “A Christmas Carol.” “I still think it’s a great story.”
Slobodnick described “A Christmas Carol” as a classic that “refreshes you for the holiday season.”
“This version is extremely poignant and delicately told,” she said.
Like Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” the ballet follows a grumpy, miserly old man whose life is transformed over the course of one magical night.Thomas Johantgen and Ryan Beck share the role of the adult Ebenezer Scrooge, who re-examines his “Bah, humbug!” attitude as he learns about the true meaning of Christmas. Niko Yaraslovski plays Scrooge as a child.
Thomas Borne plays his underpaid clerk, Bob Crachit. Ballet Theatre San Luis Obispo’s assistant director, Blair London, dances the role of Scrooge’s nephew, and Michelle McLaughlin is young Scrooge’s fiancé.
Appearing as the Spirit of Christmas Past, the Spirit of Christmas Present and the Spirit of Christmas Future are Natalie Smith, Brianna Thompson and Leslie Baumberger, respectively.
The rest of the cast includes Johnee Gange as Scrooge’s former partner, Jacob Marley; Charley Prize and Cathie Babb as the ever-festive Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig; Julie Downey as Mrs. Crachit; and Devinne Barnett as Tiny Tim.
Although staging “A Christmas Carol” presents artistic and technical challenges, Slobodnik said Ballet Theatre San Luis Obispo is up for the task. “The dancers I have in my company are becoming more sophisticated. They’re dance artists,” she said.
Plus, she added, Reed is always willing to be flexible.
“This is his vision,” she said of the choreographer. “However, within that vision, if something physically is not working for the dancer, he will be the first to say, ‘We need to change it.’"
Slobodnik attributes that attitude to Reed’s lengthy career as a dancer, choreographer and company director.
Reed was a soloist with Ballet Alicia Alonso of Cuba, the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. He studied choreography at the Bolshoi and Kirov ballets, going on to direct three metropolitan ballet companies and found the dance department at Indiana University.
In 1989, Reed moved to the Central Coast with his wife, Sydna, to retire — only to teach master classes and launch the Gilbert Reed Ballet. The dance company closed in 2002 when he retired a second time.
“I had intended to stay retired, but then this came up,” Reed said with a laugh.
On revisiting “A Christmas Carol” with a new dance company, he said, “It’s fun. You have to look at it with different dancers and a different eye. You have to play within the range.”
Slobodnik, who served as Reed’s assistant director and prima ballerina for years, said she’s relished the chance to work once again with the man she respectfully calls “Mr. Reed.”
“He has the history. He knows what will work theatrically and what won’t,” she said. “He’s a master storyteller in addition to being an amazing choreographer.”
A future collaboration is already in the works. According to Slobodnik, Ballet Theatre San Luis Obispo will perform Reed’s “The Firebird” in March as part of an autism-themed performing arts gala.
“It’s going to be a really cool program,” she said.