In any other production, Laura Morton La Russa would probably prepare for a performance by chatting with cast mates in the dressing room, or perhaps warming up onstage, reviewing choreography with her fellow dancers. For Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre’s upcoming performance, “Marley Was Dead, to Begin With: A Christmas Carol Told Again,” Morton La Russa will stray from her usual routines when she prepares to perform the principal role of Marley.
“I use method acting when I get into the theater,” she says. “I get ready by myself when nobody else is in the dressing rooms, and I warm up by myself when everyone else has finished onstage. I take on this headspace being in purgatory like Marley, without being able to communicate with other people, but other people still being around.” She finds that keeping herself separate from others before the curtains open helps get her into the mindset of her unique character.
Credit: Christina Massad
Credit: Christina Massad
Morton La Russa will bring Marley to life (and death) when the company performs the full-evening work at Kennesaw State University Dance Theater in Marietta Dec. 9 and 10.
In this adaptation of the Charles Dickens’ classic, “A Christmas Carol,” choreographer Heath Gill reimagines the relationship between the main character, Ebenezer Scrooge, and his deceased business partner.
In the novel, Scrooge’s late business partner is Jacob Marley, whose ghost is cursed to wander the earth weighed down by the greed he manifested during his lifetime. Jacob Marley warns Scrooge that he could suffer a similar fate if he doesn’t listen to the spirits who soon follow; Marley is not mentioned again.
In Gill’s version, Marley is a businesswoman who is key to the entire plot. She opens and closes the show, acting as a throughline for the story.
Terminus premiered this work during the pandemic in 2020 as a dance film. The company brought it to the stage for the first time during the 2021 holiday season.
This year, guest artist Bret Coppa replaces Gill in the role of Scrooge’s nephew Fred and Christina Massad is Spirit, alongside Terminus protégés Anna Owen and Katelyn Sager. The narration remains the same: Chris Kayser is Scrooge (he owned that role for 16 years at the Alliance Theatre) and Tess Malis Kincaid voices Marley. The haunting original score is by composer Jacob Ryan Smith.
Morton La Russa, who joined Terminus as a protégé in 2018, and is now both a company member and director of the student program, was thrilled when Gill asked her to play the role of Marley. She was no stranger to character roles, having played Carabosse in Atlanta Ballet 2′s “Sleeping Beauty” and smaller roles in John McFall’s “The Nutcracker,” but Marley was her first principal role with a professional company.
Morton La Russa grew up in Tennessee performing story ballets with her mother’s school and recognized how she thrived in theatrical ballets. In particular, she welcomed the chance to be a villain. “There’s a lot of depth with villains,” she says. “With Marley, I get to experience just about every emotion, which is challenging and exhausting but also really rewarding.”
When she first took on the role of Marley for the film, Morton La Russa dove right into figuring out how to portray her important character. To prepare initially, and even now as she revisits her role, she rereads the Dickens’ novel and watches different film adaptations. “It’s fun to find different ways people have interpreted the story and find ways that I can work inside of that,” she says.
The Terminus version came together fully for Morton La Russa when she donned Marley’s costume for a photo shoot. “A lot of the persona that I ended up creating with Heath came along when I had my sleeves on for the first time,” she says. “I have these big puffy sleeves with a suit-jacket look. The moment that I put them on, it was like, ‘game over.’ I knew exactly who I was.”
Morton La Russa first performed Marley with the benefit of retakes and filming over days rather than a single hourlong performance, but she finds value in both the stage and the film versions.
The stage adaptation demands more from her stamina-wise than the film, but also offers her the chance to experience the immense emotional arc of her character in one performance, and to connect directly with the audience. She says she hopes audiences will take an emotional journey with her, reflecting on life, love and redemption.
“There’s always space for forgiveness and love, and to hear people and communicate freely. There’s always one more chance or maybe another opportunity to seize the day.”
Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre: “Marley Was Dead, to Begin With: A Christmas Carol Told Again”
8 p.m. Dec. 9; 2 and 8 p.m. Dec. 10. $13.25-$47. Kennesaw State University Dance Theater, 1100 S. Marietta Parkway, Marietta. terminusmbt.com.
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