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A Dancer’s Christmas

NCR Staff

At Christmas each year Bostonians are reminded of what the rest of the world is less likely to know -- that Jesuits have a tradition of dance.

Now in its 20th season at Boston College, “A Dancer’s Christmas” is Jesuit dance in contemporary dress. Jesuit Fr. Robert VerEecke, dancer-choreographer, stages the ballet annually in Boston College’s Robersham Theater Arts Center in Chestnut Hill, Mass. The Boston Globe calls it “a beautiful spiritual alternative to secular Christmas shows.”

Dance, said VerEecke, was a curriculum requirement at Jesuit universities in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. That was highly stylized royal court dance, some contrast to what VerEecke choreographs. America magazine describes VerEecke’s work as having “a supple eloquence that is anything but showy.”

Not that VerEecke isn’t part showman. The job of producer calls for showmanship. Over the years, he has attracted such high-caliber guest performers as Andrew Le Beau of the New York-based Paul Taylor Dance Company, and dancers from “Riverdance,” the Irish music and dance show touring North America, Europe and Asia.

VerEecke, 52, Boston College’s artist-in-residence, limits his own performance in “Dancer’s Christmas” to the role of a lame beggar. It’s a role that fits him, said VerEecke, who began developing his dancing talent at age 5, if only for an audience of one, himself, and a loyal family obliged to watch. “I’m a beggar in all things,” VerEecke said. “I’m a pastor.”

“A Dancer’s Christmas,” performed to taped music, is staged for seven nights in the middle of December, with two abridged performances in Catholic schools. The nightly shows play to audiences of 400 to 500. Though VerEecke has rewritten elements of the three segments over the years, the production remains similar to that presented for the first time two decades ago: 10 dancers and an audience of four dozen in a college chapel.

“It’s basically the scriptural story of Christmas,” VerEecke said. “The first act is called ‘Triptych.’ ” In earlier years, the opening was stories from Hebrew scriptures. It is danced to “The Lark Ascending” by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The opening changed after a retreat VerEecke made three years ago. “I was reading one of Benedictine Sebastian Moore’s books where he said, ‘We need to begin with the Passion and move back to the birth to try to understand what this is about,’ ” VerEecke said. “That’s a direct quote.”

VerEecke was inspired to rewrite the first act. “I revisioned the piece as a memory on the part of Mary, the mother of Jesus, after the crucifixion. She is seeing what you are seeing on stage: a juxtaposition of the images of birth and death. It’s her memory of the Annunciation, the Visitation and Nativity woven together with her memories of moments in Jesus’ adult ministry -- such as the wedding feast at Cana.”

The act closes with Mary downstage at the time of Jesus’ birth while upstage behind her is the Pietà, Mary holding Jesus’ body. “It’s an extremely affecting moment for people,” he said.

The middle act, a sort of Chaucerian interlude, comes from the more boisterous and animated tradition of medieval mystery and morality plays and traveling players. It is danced to medieval and Renaissance Christmas music by the Boston Camarata.

Prime among the dancers are an angel, a bossy monk, children cavorting and the lame beggar danced by VerEecke. Professional dancer Paul Taylor has frequently danced the angel role.

“Originally, when I first did this act,” said VerEecke, “I


was trying to make a comment on the official church’s uptightness about the body, and movement and celebration, through dance. So I had this character, this very uptight monk who would come on stage and stop all the dancing. As soon as he left the stage, everyone would start dancing again, having a great time.”

These days, in the second act’s recently developed sequel, ‘The Town of Miracles,’ the monk is transfigured by watching from the shadows everything in Act One, said VerEecke. “His heart is transformed, and he joins in the dance” in Act Two, he said.

The final act, “On the Eve,” is danced to a suite of Christmas carols. “Pieces like, ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,’ ‘Lo! How a Rose,’ ‘What Child is This?’ ‘Three Ships.’ ”

“A Dancer’s Christmas” is a sizeable production -- 50 dancers. Because of its large scale, the novel Noël dance performance attracts much regional media coverage. All favorable.

National Catholic Reporter, December 22, 2000