It’s Miss Marley, if you please. In Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre’s Marley Was Dead, To Begin With, a riveting morality dance film based on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the central, most complex and most interesting character is not Scrooge but Miss Marley. Yes, a woman, and like Scrooge’s dead business partner Jacob Marley in the novel, she is a ghost. A fierce, funny, jealous, conflicted, tormented and pushy ghost. And that’s just for starters.
Terminus performed Marley Was Dead live for the first time last weekend at the Kennesaw State University Dance Theater. For those who missed it, the film version can be viewed online through January 4 and is well worth the $20. (ArtsATL named it the best dance production of 2020.)
In the novel and many theatrical productions, Marley’s ghost sets the story in motion and then takes a back seat, letting the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future teach Scrooge the lessons of compassion and generosity he so badly needs to learn.
Choreographer Heath Gill and composer Jacob Ryan Smith have updated the tale by doing away with those year-by-year ghosts. Instead, they give the key characters dreamlike roles in the second half of the ballet, as the battle for Scrooge’s soul becomes more urgent and time ticks ominously by.
But this production is as much about Marley’s redemption — and possible release from purgatory — as it is Scrooge’s. She is chained to Scrooge physically and morally; she was no better than him, maybe worse, alive and hasn’t improved while dead. She runs the show like a crazed ringmaster, taunting Scrooge even as he begins to soften.
The ballet opens on Miss Marley (Laura Morton) as she rises from the floor (the grave?) in a deep backbend. She silently observes Scrooge (a bespectacled Christian Clark) working late on Christmas Eve alongside his overworked and underpaid employee Bob Cratchit (guest dance artist Darvensky Louis). The images emerge from darkness and then fade into black as she adjusts to her new role as ghost. The lighting here and throughout is stark, chiaroscuro, painting the space in red and black.
We see, and hear, the familiar scene of Cratchit asking timidly for the day off on Christmas Day. This opening section is almost exclusively danced to the spoken word, recorded by well-known Atlanta actors: Chris Kayser, who for 16 years was Scrooge in the Alliance production, portrays him again here; actress Tess Malis Kincaid, now development director at Theatrical Outfit, is an imperious Marley. Nicholas Copsis gives voice to Cratchit, Olivia Tennison to Belle and Jacob Ryan Smith to Scrooge’s nephew Fred.
Including the spoken word in a ballet is tricky. It works in Marley, in large part because the recorded, spoken-word actors give such persuasive and compelling performances, and also because the six dancers (it feels like more) embody their characters and dance their “lines” with commitment and conviction.
Fred (dancer Alexandre Gonzaga) makes an entrance, his ebullient, generous nature expressed in virtuoso jumps, turns and cartwheels, again reflecting the text, some of which is taken straight from the novel. Gill’s choreography mirrors the words with percussive, pedestrian gestures. At times the dancers mouth the words; other times not. These scenes call to mind illustrations in a book. Their realism provides a strong counterpoint to the ghostly journey that follows.
Once Scrooge is alone, Miss Marley gets to work. She takes him back to his youth, where he sees his sister — the one who died young, Miss Marley reminds him without a hint of compassion. Gill and the company artists have done a masterful job of creating unique movement vocabulary for each character and scene. Here it’s simple, playful phrases full of childlike joy and innocence.
Next, we’re at the party where young Scrooge meets Belle (Rachel Van Buskirk). The sweetness of young love is expressed in a beautiful pas de deux, starting with a tentative waltz and expanding into buoyant lifts and seamless partnering. Van Buskirk and Clark are frequent partners and their ease with one another is evident. Marley’s next lesson is at Fred’s home. Again, the spoken word dictates the movement, simple, everyday gestures such as Fred’s wife (Van Buskirk, in her second of three roles) brushing off the top of the sofa like a fussy housewife.
The costumes and minimal sets evoke Victorian England, but there’s enough updating to make the work feel contemporary. For instance, this Tim isn’t tiny or on crutches, but brave, boisterous and battling a terminal cough. The theme of greed and financial inequity needs no updating. It’s both timely and timeless.
There were moments when I wished for brighter lighting so I could see the dancers better, but the goal clearly is to create a dramatic environment — which succeeds — and not to showcase technique. All of the dancers are outstanding in their technique, which is driven by their characters. Gill knows the company dancers well; he choreographs to their strengths, allowing them to fully inhabit their roles.
Ryan Smith’s original score and the action weave together seamlessly. Piano and strings predominate in the more abstract dance sections, and a ticking clock emerges at crucial times. Louis has a terrific solo as the dream-world Cratchit, dancing on a clock face projected onto the floor. He is both lyrical and frenetic, his hip-hop background in evidence, racing against time. In fact, time is like an invisible character throughout, as Marley pushes Scrooge to change his ways before daybreak on Christmas Day.
Morton has a plethora of facial expressions that are emphasized with dramatically lit close-ups. No gray, see-through ghost, she has a deeply grounded physicality, with technical power and acting chops that make her perfect for the role.
Felipe Barral of IGNI Productions did a superb job with the filming, postproduction and editing. (Full Disclosure: Barral is an occasional contributor to ArtsATL.) He keeps the camera work simple and uses close-ups strategically to support the story. Ben Rawson’s lighting design not only sets the tone, but sculpts the space in multiple creative ways.
In the final moments, Scrooge is so happy to see life anew that he can’t find his shoes, and doesn’t care. Clark is a delight here. Marley, meanwhile, continues to drag around imaginary chains, weary and angry. Has Scrooge’s redemption freed her too, or not? Is she laughing or crying at the end? Or both at the same time? It’s hard to tell. Either way, Morton’s performance is a tour de force. She collapses to the floor. The stage goes dark. She’s done.
As with its dance film The Poet, Terminus exceeds expectations with Marley, delivering a sugar-free holiday classic that rings true on every level.
Gillian Anne Renault has written about dance for ArtsATL since 2012. Previously, her reviewsand features appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News, the Herald Examiner, Ballet News and many other publications. In August 2021 she was named a senior editor for ArtsATL overseeing Art+Design and Dance.