A Christmas Carol
An Original Ballet by Jurijs Safonovs
Photos by Adam Pittman
Just a few days before Christmas Eve in London in 1843, Charles Dickens self-published the bleak story of accountant Edenezer Scrooge, a “greedy and covetous old sinner,” whose name has become synonymous with “miser.” In Dicken’s story, A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley, who has been wandering the earth in chains for seven years because of his own parsimonious nature, and who warned Scrooge to change his greed and selfishness or suffer the same fate. Scrooge is then visited by the ghosts of “Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come,” and taken on a journey that changes his heart just in time for Christmas.
Since then A Christmas Carol has become a classic reminder of how an obsession with money and profit can kill the spirit of love and generosity, celebrated during the Christmas season together with the birth of Christ.
In the 173 years since Dicken’s first published his cautionary tale, A Christmas Carol has never been out of print. It has been adapted for the stage in plays, operas, and in many feature films.
For the first time on Friday and Saturday, November 18th & 19th, Statesboro area residents will be treated to an original A Christmas Carol ballet, written, directed, and choreographed by the founding director of Statesboro’s Youth Ballet, Jurijs Safonovs.
A native of Latvia, Safonovs is celebrating his fifth anniversary with the Youth Ballet. Hired in the summer of 2012 by former executive director of the Averitt Center for the Arts, Tim Chapman, Safonovs came to Statesboro by way of the Virginia Ballet where he served as principal dancer beginning in 2002. The Virginia Ballet sponsored Safonovs’ green card and allowed him to emigrate from Latvia after graduating from the Riga Choreography School and dancing professionally with the Latvian National Opera and the Latvian National Ballet Theatre, the biggest and oldest ballet company in Latvia.
Safonovs is trained in the Vaganova method of ballet, a “modern method” started in St. Petersburg 100 years ago. During the time of the Soviet Union, the system of how to teach the Vaganova method of ballet was unionized and standardized in all the republics.
The Vaganova method is named for Agrippina Vaganova (1879 – 1951), the woman responsible for the method of ballet taught in Russian schools since 1921. Her methods of teaching, training and technique were a combination of several elements of French, Italian, and other Russian ballet principles. The Vaganova Method combines elements of the French romantic ballet’s lyricism and the Italian ballet’s athleticism to improve the old imperial Russian method of teaching.
Famous dancers trained in the Vaganova method such as Nureyev, Baryshnikov, Pavlova, and Balanchine, show incredible flexibility and extension of movement.
Safonovs has been teaching the Vaganova method to area dance students for the past five years. Each season, his students showcase their talent with holiday and spring performances. The first holiday performance by the Statesboro Youth Ballet was the Nutcracker.
“The Nutcracker is the most popular ballet in the U.S. We have produced it here on a large scale with great feedback and good reviews. It is something we will continue to perform every other year,” said Safonovs.
While researching other possible holiday performances for the Youth Ballet, Safonovs came across Dicken’s popular Christmas story. “A Christmas Carol has not been done many times as a ballet,” Safonovs said. “Once I realized this, I got excited.”
Since this summer when auditions were held, Safonovs has been working tirelessly to perfect the new ballet. Working with the story by Dickens, Safonovs is adding his own interpretations of the classic message through dance. He has created an original musical score by listening to countless CDs of Christmas carols and hymns, working to match the dance moves exactly to the movements in the music.
“This is definitely a classical ballet production with innovations that are interesting and that help tell the story with special effects, inventive props and sets, and a chorus of singers from the Statesboro Youth Chorale,” said Safonovs.
He is assisted in producing the ballet by wife Jennifer who is helping with choreography and staging. “Jennifer tells me what looks best from an artistic director’s prospective. You will see her influence throughout the show,” he said.
Since Safonovs directs and dances in the show as Ebenezer Scrooge, he counts on Jennifer to help with the overall vision of the performance. In turn, Jennifer is directed by Safonovs as she plays the part of Mrs. Cratchit, the wife of Scrooge’s employee Bob Cratchit, with whom Scrooge eventually enjoys a celebration of Christmas.
A professional ballerina, Jennifer regularly dances leading roles in classical ballets with the Neos Dance Theatre of Mansfield, Ohio. A native of Akron, she has danced in many productions with Neos including as the Snow Queen and the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Nutcracker.
The role of Bob Cratchit will be played by Robert Wesner known to many Statesboro dance enthusiasts as the founder and artistic director of the Neos Dance Theatre. Wesner has performed here several times with the Neos Company and in solo roles as a guest of the Statesboro Youth Ballet. Wesner’s wife Brooke, co-founder of Neos, will dance the role of a beautiful belle, bringing her own expertise and professionalism into the show.
The cast has been rehearsing since August every Saturday and Sunday from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. During the weeks leading up to the performance, cast members will be rehearsing eight hours a day, into the night, for the two hour performance that will have an intermission.
Safonovs has reached out to community members to help with building sets, painting backdrops, and assembling props.
“A custom backdrop has been built specifically for this show by Gary Dart, who is retired from Georgia Southern and has produced many theatrical versions of A Christmas Carol,” said Safonovs. “Artists Scott Foxx and Kelly Berry, along with the Averitt Center’s technical director Robert Faller, have been instrumental in interpreting the vision for the show. We have had several meetings where we worked toward a perfect look for the staging. I think our patrons will be excited and impressed with the creative affects.”
Veteran Averitt Center costumer Melinda Roell is creating new costumes for the cast. “Melinda works very hard,” said Safonovs. “She is very good at translating from an idea to a pattern or costume. She has done this before for many ballets and plays,” he said.
“We also borrowed a few costumes from Sarah McCarroll who runs the costume shop at Georgia Southern,” said Safonovs. “We are very fortunate to have a great partnership with Georgia Southern when it comes to lending us period costumes for our productions. Having professional costumes helps to elevate the performance,” he said.
“The greatest credit for the performance must go to Tim Chapman” said Safonovs. “It was his idea to look at A Christmas Carol. We were looking for something different for a holiday show and Tim mentioned this story from having seen movies and theater productions. Carol Thompson, our interim director of the Arts Center has also been very responsive and supportive,” he said.
“In our fifth season, we now have 150-200 dancers in the region from as far away as Dublin, Georgia, who have been trained in the Vaganova Method of ballet,” said Safonovs. “From the beginning of the Statesboro Youth Ballet, I have been dedicated and committed to classical ballet performance.”
His dedication has a resulted in the realization of a new vision – the first live ballet performance of A Christmas Carol to be produced in the southeast, debuting November 18th at the Emma Kelly Theater. Editor’s Note: For tickets visit www.averittcenterforthearts.org or call 912.212.2787.