African American is 'Match Girl'


Twelve-year-old Veronica Prem-Das, center, holds the title role this year in the annual production of ''The Little Match Girl.'' With her are the cats, from left, Kristen Haynes, Alexandra Book and Rachel Walker, all 13.

TRACY WILCOX/Special to the Guardian
Published: Thursday, December 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 30, 2005 at 2:58 p.m.

Now begins Gainesville's annual triumvirate of holiday full-length ballets, each with its own stories (onstage and off) to tell. While Danscompany's "Cinderella" and Dance Alive!'s "Nutcracker" wait gracefully in the Phillips Center wings, Gainesville Ballet Theatre's "The Little Match Girl" opens first in line.

Facts

'LITTLE MATCH GIRL'

What: The Gainesville Ballet Theatre's annual production of "The Little Match Girl."

Where: Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, UF Cultural Plaza, Hull Road and NW 34th Street, UF campus.

When: 8 p.m. Friday and 2:30 p.m. Saturday.

Cost: Tickets are $12-$16 for the evening performance and $6-$10 for the matinee.

The ballet starts at 8 p.m. Friday, with another performance at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at the Phillips Center. Of the three local holiday ballets, "Match Girl" is the only one that casts a child as its star.

Twelve-year-old Veronica Prem-Das holds this year's title role. Of the ballet's 27 years, she is the second African-American dancer to play the coveted part of the impoverished girl whose loneliness is rescued by the love of a heavenly spirit.

"We have had Jamaican, Brazilian and multiple Asians from various countries dance the role," recalls GBT founder Joni Messler.

"I remember one ethnic 'Match Girl,' and there I was playing her spirit grandmother. Of course I thought it was odd, but I realized it didn't matter. We are all one; the ballet's message is that we all deserve fairness and love."

That message calls for a poignant death scene. Messler was brilliant to pause from her chosen Tchaikovsky/Shostakovitch score to choreograph this scene in silence.

Prem-Das feels she has "a good grasp" on the dramatic challenge, having studied acting for three years in Gainesville Association for the Creative Arts camps. She is also in the performing arts program at P.K. Yonge. (Coincidentally, her drama teacher there is Mr. T.O. Sterrett who has danced under Messler.)

Messler chuckles when remembering one especially innocent Match Girl whose only experience with death was the demise of a lizard.

"But some of these kids have so much depth," Messler says. "You never know until you see what they pull out on that stage."

Note: Some parents may hesitate over the ballet's serious moments. Kids are indeed affected by this production, and I call that a good thing. A story that addresses and transcends life's sorrows, rather than ignore them, seems entirely welcome in this toy-crazed season - and entirely appropriate given the traditions of the holidays.

Prem-Das concurs. I asked about her favorite aspect of the ballet: Her solo? Meeting the guest artists from New York's prestigious Joffrey Ballet School? Spinning on a stage filled with circus acts and falling snow?

"I think Act III, " she answers.

Artistic Director Judy Benton is surprised: "But that's where she doesn't do anything."

"It means a lot," Prem-Das explains. " It means that even if someone you love has gone, they're still always there."

Benton's challenge this year has been the influx of up-and-coming dancers in new roles. There is a freshness to the choreography, too, with several dances restaged.

Most of the standards remain, certainly those contributed by Joffrey master teacher John Magnus, as well as the famous Balanchine ballerina Marie-Jeanne.

Marie-Jeanne starred in numerous George Balanchine works, creating roles with Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo as well as New York City Ballet and its two predecessors, Ballet Caravan and Ballet Society. She performed worldwide from 1937-'53.

She retired quietly in Gainesville with her husband, the late Dwight Godwin, a University of Florida professor who enjoyed a celebrated career as a dance photographer. Marie-Jeanne taught with Messler for 20 years. She now resides in Texas with her son.

Her contributions to "Match Girl" are legendary in GBT's history. Marie-Jeanne even adapted Balanchine's own choreography for the "Lemondrop" solo.

"There was an emergency one night," Messler explains. "A dancer couldn't go on, so Balanchine pulled Marie-Jeanne over and in 10 minutes created a brand new piece for her to perform instead. He set the steps for her, and she later reset them for our 'Lemondrop' role.

"I try to emphasize the importance to my students - we have actual Balanchine choreography in this show!"

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    The public can enjoy it and still catch an energizing showcase of African dance and music at University of Florida's Constans Theatre this weekend.

    "Agbedidi: Dancing Africa in Time and Space" runs 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $8-$12. A large ensemble from UF and Miami's New World School of the Arts will present works by three male choreographers. Represented is the ever-popular Mohamed DaCosta, who teaches at UF and Santa Fe Community College.

    Of the three past "Agbedidi" shows I've enjoyed, there have been a handful of knockout dancers that simply steal your attention. The live music is exuberant, and the dancers themselves are often called to sing (and not badly).

    This production will unite African dances from both the continent and diaspora, including Guinea, Trinidad and the United States. For more information, call (352) 392-1653.

    E-mail Sarah Ingley at Scene@gvillesun.com.

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