A story of redemption lies at the heart of “A Christmas Carol,” the 1843 Charles Dickens novella that has been turned into plays, operas, films and ballets. They all tell the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, an old curmudgeon who changes his ways after visits from a ghost and the spirits of Christmas past, present and future.
It’s a story all too familiar at Charm City Ballet, the Baltimore County-based ballet company and school that plans to stage its version of the classic production during two performances only, on Saturday, Dec. 17. The founders relate to the message of giving back that the work celebrates, as they seek to offer a kinder experience than the demanding and sometimes demeaning one that they experienced as young dancers.
Training and casting dancers as young as age 3 and as old as 80 and up — a rarity in the world of dance — the troupe staged its first production in 2015 and landed its studio in Cockeysville in 2017. While most companies opt for “The Nutcracker” around this time of year, Charm City Ballet has made “A Christmas Carol” a winter tradition. The production wasn’t put on for two years due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Co-founders Becca Friedman and Pete Commander, who met as undergraduates at Goucher College’s dance department more than a decade ago, said they struggled to find their rhythm after graduating. Both sought to join the world of professional ballet but never reached the summits they intended.
That compelled them to launch Charm City Ballet, which they said has provided a home for hobbyists, aspiring professionals, fresh college graduates and adults who still have plenty of time left on pointe. The company holds two productions a year, open to dancers within Charm City Ballet and beyond. Commander and Friedman also act as career coaches, mentors and sounding boards for students who may not know where dance can take them.
“One thing that we had found with local dance schools is that it was really hard to find a balance of really high-quality training with a healthy environment,” Friedman said. “We are really big into making sure dancers keep themselves healthy — physically and mentally — and it’s not something we’re afraid to talk about.”
Commander, who came up as a commodified male dancer in New Jersey, said he didn’t grasp how brutal the professional world could be until he began striking out in auditions. He equates the stakes to professional sports, which favor a selective few out of a large talent pool and require total devotion to make the cut.
“For ballet dancers, you have to not just do the job, but you have to look a certain way while you’re doing the job,” he said. “You can very easily cross the line into unhealthy territory.”
Friedman and Commander have four other instructors on hand, but they take on much of the work running the ins and outs of the company themselves. That includes instructing, choreographing shows, booking venues, handling billing and finding new students — a tougher feat after the pandemic forced classes to shift to a virtual format for much of 2020 and 2021.
“We basically lost one to two generations of dancers during the pandemic, because the little ones — 3, 4 or 5 years old — when we go virtual, they understandably didn’t have the attention span for the hour-long ballet class at home,” Commander said.
The school had little choice but to go remote: Friedman, 35, has cystic fibrosis, a life-threatening disorder that puts her at greater risk of contracting severe COVID-19. In the weeks leading up to “A Christmas Carol,” Friedman said, she has let her health fall by the wayside as she helped the team sprint toward the finish line. “I have not gotten as much rest as I think I need,” she said.
But, she added, the show must go on: In October, the production’s venue pulled out, forcing the team to book a smaller theater. Then their casted Scrooge withdrew from the show; Friedman and Commander managed to find a replacement for him, too. And now COVID-19 cases are again on the rise again in Maryland, which Commander and Friedman are monitoring to ensure that dancers — who range in age from 5 to 60 — can perform safely. They canceled last year’s show after two cast members tested positive for the coronavirus.
All the hoops are worth it, they said, if it means getting their students to the stage.
For Shivani Mutreja, a 15-year-old sophomore at Dulaney High School, the company has not just provided her with a creative outlet but with an extended family of dancers. She said that while professional ballet might not be the route for her, she hopes to keep dancing through adulthood, like some of those she now dances with.
“Seeing all the people I take classes with, in their 20s and 30s and even older, it makes me feel like I have somewhere to be, too,” Mutreja said.
Another student, Julie Peck, said she didn’t expect to keep dancing at an advanced level after she left college. The 29-year-old aerospace engineer will lead as the Ghost of Christmas Present this weekend, her third time being tapped for the role.
“I knew I would be able to take classes somewhere, but I didn’t think I would have a chance to keep performing,” said Peck, of Laurel. “Everyone struggles a bit with ballet, especially as we get older and our bodies change. But finding a way to do it and still feel supported is really special.”
Commander and Friedman said they’re passing on the guidance they didn’t receive as younger dancers struggling to find their way in a world without professional dance.
“It would have been so much easier to give up. But I really, really think that it’s important that our dancers understand that we put these stories on stage because because life is really difficult, because things are really hard, because there are dragons everywhere,” Commander said. “And sometimes the only escape that a person has is two hours on a Saturday [when] they’re being forced to sit in an audience and watch a story about a man who’s redeeming himself.”