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A Dancerís Christmas at Boston College
A Dancerís Christmas
Created by Father Robert VerEecke. Performed by the Boston Liturgical Dance Ensemble. At Boston Collegeís Robsham Theater through December 20.

When you think about it, you realize that a lot of the Christmas entertainments we enjoy arenít really about Christmas. Even The Nutcracker only riffs on festive traditions of the season. A Dancerís Christmas at Boston College focuses on the religious meaning of the holiday; it not only celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ but affirms that God is still spreading good in the world.

Both jovial and reverent, A Dancerís Christmas is the creation of a dance-enthused priest, the Reverend Robert VerEecke, and the Boston Liturgical Dance Ensemble, which he directs in addition to his day job as pastor of St. Ignatius Loyola Church. Now in its 20th year, with annual updates and new additions, the show looks at Christmas from three historical vantage points: the lifetime of Jesus, the Middle Ages, and the present. Despite this ambitious scope, the production is modest without being amateurish, incorporating the professional dancers of the company, a junior company of teenage girls, and a clutch of children.

Act one, "For All Time," begins as a simple tableau of the Nativity against a backdrop of three silhouetted arches. The kings and shepherds assemble at the manger and are visited by four white-clad angels on pointe, to a recorded singing of "The Wexford Carol." Then, to Ralph Vaughan Williamsís The Lark Ascending, thereís a longer series of scenes from the life of Jesus that ends with his death on the cross. As the violin rises in its final feathery spiral toward Heaven, heís tenderly taken down by Mary and the other mourners while the lights fade to a downstage flashback of young Mary with Joseph rocking a baby.

"Once upon a Christmas" takes place in a town square during the Middle Ages, with recordings of mediæval and Renaissance carols by the Boston Camerata. There are peasants and mummers, nobles, clerics, nuns, naughty women, jesters, and a wagon stage of the kind that used to roll through the countryside to bring the Churchís messages and warnings to the populace in theatrical form. The miracle and mystery plays of that time were fierce in their standards and their chastisement. If you strayed from the righteous path, you went straight into the jaws of Hell.

At the Robsham, when the doors of the wagon stage opened, four small children tumbled out, one no bigger than a pumpkin. These were adorable, of course, and they toddled through the subsequent dances like troupers. The lesson of the day was given by two sets of comic mimes: Adam, Eve, and the Serpent enacted "The Fall," and a goofy Joseph and Mary accomplished "The Recovery" when they acquired a child. These sketches were done in the broad style of traveling street performers, and their mugging made fun of the pious admonitions of a cardinal and his companion monks. After that, peasants romped with nuns, the clergy did a kick chorus, and everyone joined in a boisterous farandole.

I thought the third act, "Dancing Day," which was accompanied by more familiar carols, held together less well than the earlier parts. Father VerEecke came in and out in a black suit, bow tie, and red vest, as a kind of dancing major domo, introducing neat, balletic ensembles of women, children, men. There was a dance with wrapping paper, ribbons, and boxes, all of which were whisked off again, and another farandole in front of a Christmas tree. Three dolls were carried on and came to life: a Coppelia, an Irish stepdancer, and a man in a military uniform who seemed to have been influenced by Michael Jackson.

The production is really all dancing, and the core company members as well as some of the younger participants looked well trained. (Some of them dance and teach regularly on the Boston scene.) The problem for the choreographer/director was to find ways for this ensemble of about 40 dancers and more than a dozen kids to execute his interesting concept. Father VerEecke used a rather limited vocabulary of chaîné turns, jumps, folk-dance steps, and some showy items like cartwheels for children and a couple of lightly classical pas de deux. Instead of incorporating mediæval or Renaissance dance forms to go with the second-act carols, or a real moonwalking soldier, or ensemble numbers that reinforced the diversity of the performers, he seemed to be trying for consensus. By the third act, I felt as if Iíd seen all the dance action before.

Issue Date: December 19 - 25, 2003
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