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A Belated Look at a New Holiday Treat
Recovering from Illness, We Look at Odyssey's New Christmas Favorite
By Karen Anne Webb

Dance Preview:
'It's a Wonderful Life'
Odyssey Dance Theatre
Kingsbury Hall
(University of Utah)
Dec. 16 to 24, 7:30 p.m.
and 2 p.m.
Tickets cost $15 to $35, half off for children, $5 off for those who bought tickets to ODT’s “Thriller.”
Call the Kingsbury Hall box
office at 581-7100 or visit

Much as I love "The Nutcracker" and look forward to seeing it every year, I was thrilled to hear about the long-awaited advent of another contender in the Holiday Fare market.

Odyssey Dance Theatre’s dance adaptation of Frank Capra’s "It’s a Wonderful Life" has been in the works since the time the company was still called Utah Contemporary Dance Theatre. Finally seeing artistic director Derryl Yeager’s vision come to life was worth every minute of the wait.

And how, you may ask, does one tell this story using dance? Well, one incorporates a number of other story-telling devices, including some used to advance the plot in the film. The opening scene mirror’s Capra’s with the angels chatting in heaven, but Capra’s small, black and white starry sky could never come close to evoking the sense of majesty elicited by a full scrim in glorious color spangled with sparkling lights. It was the sort of “Wow!” moment that tells you something even better is coming.

Like Imagine Ballet Theatre’s "The Secret Garden," 'It’s a Wonderful Life" was done on less than a full budget, but you would hardly know it. The starry-night scrim is followed by the opening scene from the movie with young winter revelers sledding (or shovel-ing) across a frozen pond. The set featured a real hill with multiple “slides,” one of which, of course, chutes young Harry Bailey into a 10 zillion gallon tank of water in the orchestra pit. “Wow!” moment number two.

Yeager uses a wonderful dance motif to get us inside hero George Bailey’s head. As a youth, Bailey dreams of seeing far-off places. So he and an extraordinarily talented corps of young dancers play out his fantasies by dancing in the folk idioms of places like Russia and Egypt. I wish I could name lots of names here, because these kids were technically proficient, polished, charismatic, and fluent with choreography that would have had some adults tripping over their own feet. Of a field of winners, the true standout for me was Brittney Cherry as a young Mary Bailey, who just lit the stage.

Yeager uses what he referred to in an interview as “intelligent mime” rather than the ballet pantomime you would find in one of the classical warhorse ballets like The Sleeping Beauty. This included some neat symbolic moments like the donning by the adult George Bailey of his dad’s business coat. When Dad (Yeager) encourages George to wear it when all he wants to do is be off seeing the world, the coat is far too small. When Dad dies and George is forced to don it or see the family business close its doors forever, the coat is suddenly far too big.

There are also cute little dance tweaks, bits of slyness, and in jokes. The board of directors of the Bailey Building and Loan, while discussing the fate of the business after Dad dies, looks remarkably like the diplomats in the opening scene of the Kurt Joos anti-war ballet, “The Green Table.” Either that or the goblins from Gringott’s bank having a board meeting.

Tweak or slyness, my favorite was the Bert and Ernie characters (Kevin Delaney and Mario Espinoza) doing an actual ballet variation worth of Marius Petipa. Along comes George (Eldon Johnson at the performance I attended), and we have a pas de trois. Then along comes the (very) adult Violet (Julia Bryce) and we go from ballet to burlesque in short order. Bryce was brilliant in this part—an extension to die for, and an ability to take the stage with unabashed, vampy sensuality.

Johnson and his Mary, Lisa Benson, made a sweet couple, although Benson’s choreography has her being playful to Donna Reed’s chaste. As the walls close in on George, though, she brings a welcome womanly, dramatic weight to the stage. And—heck!—it’s fun to see two such watchable dancers tackle true dramatic roles. Johnson portrayed a George Bailey I could believe in and empathize with.

The water tank plays an important role in two other spots in George’s life. I have to admit it took seeing ODT’s production to show me the connection between the presence of water and crucial moments in George’s life. If you’ve seen the company’s “Rain,” choreographed by Janalynn Memmott, this production had a similar use of water as a symbol for crisis and redemption.

Use number two, of course, is for the dance in the gym where the floor splits and people fall or jump into the high school’s Olympic-sized pool. In this production, the watery denouement to the scene is preceded by another “Wow!” moment, a thrilling sequence of dances that include the Lindy Hop, the Charleston, and a Lindy-ish sequence to the primal beat of Benny Goodman’s “Sing! Sing! Sing!”

And, naturally, use number three is where Clarence the un-winged angel takes a little dip in a freezing river to stop George, at the nadir of his life, from committing suicide. The be-kilted Rowland Butler (his voice over is done by a be-Brogued Kim Blackett) is utterly charming in this role. Think of him as The Little Angel That Could.

Although the actual dancing is most prevalent in the first half of the production, Yeager finds all sort of ways to make dance moments out of the dramatic text of the movie, as in his George-around-the-world sequence. When there is a run on the bank, that gets a little dance. When the Building and Loan, despite the run, still has two dollars left at closing time (referred to as “Momma Dollar and Poppa Dollar” in the movie), there’s a little dance about that. To underscore the point that Clarence has not yet gotten his wings, Clarence gets a little variation in which he makes an abortive attempt to fly.

Best of all, the production adds in the apotheosis that is the one thing I missed in the movie. During the curtain call, the evil miser Potter (Neal Barth) gets a summons from the Nether Realms complete with red lighting and pitchforks, and Clarence, this time in an all-white kilt, is flown in, wings and all.

Sam Cardon’s score is just beautiful. It makes the exhilarating moments brighter and heightens the sense of drama where the story becomes truly poignant. I will certainly never stop going to see "The Nutcracker," but the special place it has in my heart just expanded to include a new holiday treat that hits some new and wonderful dramatic notes.


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