New dancers bring 'different spin' to Kentucky Ballet Theatre's 'Night Before Christmas'

Principal dancer Kelsey Van Tine (as the oldest of the children) danced with artistic director Norbe Risco, who plays Santa.
Principal dancer Kelsey Van Tine (as the oldest of the children) danced with artistic director Norbe Risco, who plays Santa. Staff

Breaking with tradition always carries an element of risk for arts and cultural institutions.

So when Kentucky Ballet Theatre premiered an original ballet, The Night Before Christmas, in 2012, instead of its annual performance of The Nutcracker, no one could predict the outcome.

Would audiences eschew the new ballet in favor of the seasonal classic? Would they warm to the spirited humor between Santa Claus and a tiny mouse in the creatively liberal adaptation of the famous poem by Clement Clarke Moore? Could this original ballet become a new holiday tradition?

The risk paid off.

"We had really excellent ticket sales and by the end we were sold out and adding folding chairs," says Brienne Lowry, who is KBT's executive director and its company dancer. This year, KBT is reviving The Night Before Christmas, which opens this weekend at the Opera House.

KBT artistic director Norbe Risco, who plays Santa Claus in the show much to the delight of the young KBT student dancers, co-wrote the narrative with Ross Carter and choreographed the two-act ballet, which features 12 company dancers and dozens of student dancers as young as 5.

The show opens in Santa's workshop at the North Pole, where dance pieces feature toy-making elves and prancing reindeer, before shifting focus to a family playing in the snow. When Santa visits that same family on Christmas Eve, Santa is frightened by a mouse, hits his head on the mantel and is knocked unconscious. The family's children and an elf must complete Santa's trip around the world. The second act is largely devoted to the fantastical places and creatures they meet on their journey.

Alternating between Nutcracker and The Night Before Christmas was always part of the plan for Norbe Risco, KBT artistic director. Since KBT and the Lexington Ballet take turns mounting productions of The Nutcracker at the Opera House each Christmas season, Risco wanted to create a new tradition for the company's "off" years. Similarly, the company rotates three Halloween shows each year.

Risco says that presenting alternating shows each holiday season not only prevents over saturation of the same material, keeping programming fresh for audiences, but that it is also good for dancers, who are challenged each year to learn new skills in dozens of different roles offered by both The Nutcracker and The Night Before Christmas.

"It's great for the dancers because they will constantly be performing different things," says Risco, who says that the relatively short tenure of dancers means a company dancer may end up performing different seasonal shows two or three times instead of every single year.

"It motivates the dancers to try different work," says Risco, who adds new touches to the choreography each year that are designed to challenge dancers.

While this year's production is the second of what Risco hopes is many future productions, it is already drastically different from the first in one important way: new dancers.

Since the 2012 production, KBT has had an influx of new professional talent. Only Lowry and principal dancer Kelsey Van Tine remain from the ballet's world premiere.

"It has a very different look and feel because of different abilities and different strengths," says Lowry. "Even if you've seen it before, it's a completely different spin."

Also new this year is KBT's decision to mount the production just a few days after Christmas, which enabled them to use the Opera House as a venue.

"We feel great about it because we feel like always the spirit of Christmas goes to New Year's Eve," Risco says. "You can go to the Opera House and still be enjoying the holidays with friends and family."