The Word in the Wings
From the studio: Melody Stanert on making "A Candy Cane Christmas"
By: KAYA WEAVER
Starting this weekend, you can see a preview of GPA’s Christmas ballet, A Candy Cane Christmas, as well as reflect with us on Scripture that connects with the story. Listen in on my conversation with Artistic Director Melody Stanert to learn more about her heart behind this fun-filled event!
Kaya: The ballet world already has a much-loved Christmas tradition in The Nutcracker, so what inspired you to create a new Christmas ballet?
Melody: If I never saw The Nutcracker again…I would miss it, but it’s a tradition that feels like I want something new. The idea is to tell a story that recurs like The Nutcracker but is different from The Nutcracker.
There’s so much depth within the Christmas story. What are different facets of it that we can explore through movement and connect to? Oftentimes Christmas is just this magical time of year with sparkles and stars, and it’s easy to forget the Christmas story or just think of it in terms of a manger scene that you have outside your house.
Kaya: I have seen renditions of The Nutcracker with glitter, glitter everywhere, so it’s good to ask, what are the layers underneath the magic? Where do we get the idea that Christmas is magical?
Melody: Yeah, so keeping it fun still, but giving it something a little bit more tangible.
Kaya: Why did you choose to make the candy cane a central image in your Christmas ballet?
Melody: I think of candy canes and connect them instantly with Christmas, and I love all their tangible symbolism. The red and white stripes represent the blood of Jesus and how he washes us clean as Christmas snow. If you hold the shape one way it’s the “J” for Jesus; if it’s another way it’s a shepherd’s hook. My thought was to create a story where that symbolism is not thought of as anything important by all the people wanting the things that are sparkly, that are flashy, that seem special and unique. They look at the candy cane and are like, “Okay, that’s just a piece of candy.” But then I created a character for whom this candy cane symbolizes so much more, and she wants to share it.
Kaya: What are some of those layers we mentioned–the emotions or experiences that you associate with celebrating Christmas? How do those play into your heart behind this ballet?
Melody: Seeing Jesus in everything is something my mom tried to point out for us. She went so far as to make Frosty the Snowman be filled with the Holy Spirit! But she also wanted us to think, what’s the point of gift giving? It’s not about getting stuff for us but it’s about how we can share God’s love.
Jesus came as a gift. The wise men brought gifts to him because this is a way we show love–it’s one of the love languages. How is it that we can show and receive love through gifts, knowing that Jesus is the ultimate gift?
I associate shopping for presents with Christmas. I associate making presents, because that was the other thing: my mom wanted us to give things that we made. I was terrible at crafts; mine still look like I’m in kindergarten, but they’re full of heart! That’s why I stick to dancing. The mindset of Christmas is thinking about others, caring for others, doing for others. Growing up, we had a Jesus stocking, so at the fireplace my dad and my mom had a stocking, my sister and I had a stocking, and in the middle was a stocking that had a little manger on it. Anytime we did something that was nice or kind, we could either write our name or write what we did, and we would put it in the Jesus stocking. It was so exciting to feel like God sees what we do and sees our heart.
We always had a PlayMobil train set up around our Christmas tree with set-ups of people sledding, skiing, going for train rides, and getting hot coffee, so I think that Christmas felt high-energy, but it’s a mix of high-energy with peace. It wasn’t about stressing about getting everything and fitting everything in. This was a season when we are excited to celebrate that Jesus came to earth as a human, as a vulnerable infant, and it was important for us to take some time to think about that.
Kaya: I love all of those images, especially the Jesus stocking. While you’ve been planning rehearsal in the mornings, the dancers and I have been studying Matthew 2, when the magi bring gifts to Jesus. We’ve discussed how a thread through that story is that the magi want to give honor and worship and valuable gifts to Jesus, whereas King Herod says he wants to worship Jesus but actually tries to destroy him and withholds any gifts or honor he could give Jesus. So I love that you have this family tradition at Christmas of, in a way, giving a gift to Jesus, honoring God by doing the things that God sent Jesus to teach us.
Melody: I think it’s beautiful too, if you look at the gifts of the magi and are connecting that to the story, they were expensive gifts. It’s not like they said, “Let’s go to the Dollar Store and get this whirly-gig and give it to the baby to make him coo.” They were thoughtful, deep, connected gifts.
Dancing also isn’t cheap. The costumes, the shoes, renting the theater–the whole thing is not very easily affordable, and it can feel frivolous sometimes, but in reality this is an art form, a way of using gifts that we’ve been given to create something and offer it to God, offering our best.
Kaya: Speaking of all the work you put into creating a ballet, which piece in this ballet are you most excited about choreographing?
Melody: We did a preview of the show last Christmas, and we’re doing a preview of the show this Christmas, and each time I sit down to go through the story, I’m fine-tuning elements and changing little things, so I have a vague idea of the whole ballet, but it’s not completely concrete. I don’t know a hundred percent what I’m excited for because I don’t know the full layout, but I will say that it’s probably the original snowball fight–this year we’re doing a variation on the original. I had done a snowball fight when I was in A Christmas Spectacular at SALT Performing Arts several years ago, and it was so much fun to have a snowball fight on stage. I was like, I bet I could come up with something like this that uses classical/contemporary ballet to make something really, really fun. When we did it last Christmas, you couldn’t help but laugh and smile when you saw dancers doing fouette pirouettes and throwing snowballs at each other. It’s a fun challenge for me as a choreographer to make sure they’re doing things that they can do and also for the dancers to incorporate a snowball fight into regular ballet.
Kaya: It’s an entertaining juxtaposition of chaos with something technically very challenging, and also pretty. It also feels like that is a moment in the story that hints at how things will resolve, because the princess is there in the middle of the snowball fight having fun with everyone, and it starts to humanize her.
Melody: When I created her character I wanted her to be a slightly stereotypical, snobby princess, but at the same time, she’s a hundred percent human. She wants to feel joy, she wants to feel true happiness, and she’s looking for it. In those moments when she can just let go and not worry about anything, that’s when her true self can come out. When she puts her façade back up, then it’s “me, me, me,” and it’s less about just experiencing and being and more about an image.
Kaya: Who is the audience you hope will see this ballet, and how do you hope it will encourage or inspire them during this Christmas season?
Melody: This show is for 5 to 105 years old. It’s a ballet that is about fun, joy, and beauty, and oftentimes to see beauty you also need to see brokenness to appreciate the beauty even more. In stories we use characters who are flawed, who are broken, and we let beauty shine through and fill those cracks. So this show has Christmas sparkle, it has Christmas joy and excitement, but it also shows our flesh. We want to be selfish. The villagers feel things like, “I want to be the one the princess picks to stay at the castle. I want my gift to be the best. I want to be noticed.” The princess is like, “I want them to give me the best possible gifts.” All of the characters are on their own journey.
You can easily just watch beautiful moves, fun costumes, fun music, and see a story of a princess who invites people to her castle to give her presents…but ultimately her journey takes her down a different path, and she is intrigued by the candy cane girl. You can watch it and just see that surface-layer story, or you can watch it and see, where am I in this story? Am I viewing Christmas as a time to get people the best gift so they think well of me, or is this a moment where I’m honoring Christ and trying to show love through giving gifts? It can allow you to think a little bit differently about it.
Kaya: One of the things jumping out at me through this conversation as you describe what you’re trying to accomplish with this ballet is, like you were saying at the beginning, there is magic and sparkle with Christmas, and that’s not something that you’ve thrown out with this ballet, but if you want to dive more deeply into how you understand the story of this ballet, you’re looking for the real source of the sparkle, and that’s in what Jesus’s birth tells us about how we can relate to God and to each other.
Would you like to share a little bit about what the audience can expect to see if they participate in this year’s virtual A Candy Cane Christmas?
Melody: We wanted to give people the flexibility during this particular Christmas season to watch this ballet when you have a chance between December 9th and 13th. You’ll be able to put on your pj’s, or you can dress up and pretend you’re at a theater! It will be a 20-25 minute preview of the ballet encapsulating the whole story, so you’ll get to meet the princess, meet the villagers, see some of the fun presents they’re giving to the princess, and see how the story of Jesus impacts the princess’s heart and helps her to think about others.
On top of that, if you want to get up and move, we’re going to do a short segment where you can learn a fun dance and dance along with our professionals–or if you want your kids to do that while you’re baking cookies, you can do that too! It will run about 45 minutes altogether.
Kaya: Sounds like fun! So this year it’s virtual, and it’s a preview of the ballet, but I know you have a vision for creating a full-length ballet of A Candy Cane Christmas, which you alluded to earlier. Would you like to say anything more about your dreams for that and what it will take to make those come true?
Melody: In order to really flesh the story out, we’re going to need between 30 and 60 performers to fill the whole stage and to tell the whole ballet. That would give it its full energy. The sets and costumes it would require are ginormous–a full village, a full castle. I want to have a full wagon–not a real horse, but a big wagon that carries the presents, and have castle gates, really fill the stage with color, and have it feel like an old-fashioned set, but still be very movable. We’d need a theater with space for all of that. Oftentimes theater stages’ floors are very hard, so they work great for theater but to try to put ballet on them can be painful, so we need a theater with a little more spring in the floor. That might mean our own building…but those are just some of the things it will take to create that. If you’re a business owner and want to dive in as a sponsor to help create the full show, learn more on our sponsorship page!
Kaya: It’s exciting to get to see a little snippet of it and have that future vision in mind. It makes me think about how Christmas is this present moment where we think of Jesus being here now, but we’re also anticipating everything that Jesus accomplishes in his life and ministry, as well as waiting eagerly for the new creation even while we participate in it right now.
Melody: Tickets are “pay what you can,” so get one for yourself, tell your friends everywhere. If you want to donate a dollar, that’s fine; if you want to donate $10,000, that’s great too! We hope you’ll join us for the show.
Get virtual access to A Candy Cane Christmas here. The performance will be available for viewing December 9-13, 2022.
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