Curiosity about Central Piedmont Community College Dance Theatre's annual presentation of the Christmas Oratorio has been gnawing at me for years. Only my aversion to the ubiquitous glut of seasonal music, now beginning before Thanksgiving and lasting through New Year's Day, has kept me from exploring Bach's Yuletide music before. But this year, CPCC Dance was celebrating the 50th anniversary of the premiere of Charles Weidman's ambitious choreography in New York City. It was also the 25th anniversary of CP's first presentation of the piece – and my own arrival in Charlotte – so the rendezvous was overdue. Restaged by a former member of the Humphrey-Weidman Concert Company, MaryAnn Mee, the work seemed to fit the remodeled Pease Auditorium performance space perfectly. Nor was the music entirely unfamiliar, for the opening of the Oratorio, "Praise, joy, and gladness be blended in one," echoes the glorious trumpets and timpani that open Cantata 172, "Erschallet, ihr Lieder," one of my favorites. Sign me up!
Of course, a couple of the reasons why the CP version of Christmas Oratorio fit Pease so perfectly weren't especially encouraging. Made up of teachers, professionals, and students, the full ensemble was a mere 11-strong, and the music was not performed live. Supertitles would have been helpful in deciphering the German text, particularly when we strayed from scenes of the Nativity into more abstract sections of Weidman's work, set to recitative and hymns of praise. Across Elizabeth Avenue, the newer Halton Theater has an orchestra pit and plenteous space for vocal soloists and choristers at the margins of the stage. They already do opera there, so supertitles would not be a novelty. There are also plenty more seats at the Halton, and a dramatically upgraded CPCC Dance Theatre production might fill a hefty number of them.
On the other hand, it's worth noting how beautifully Weidman's work suits this uneven troupe with multiple proficiencies, body types, and age ranges. A Petrouchka, an Odette, or a Sugar Plum Fairy conforms nicely to the gaunt bodies that normally populate elite companies. But here we encounter Mary and Joseph seeking shelter in Bethlehem and, later on, Lazarus rising from the dead – figures who are not necessarily young, svelte, or in the pink of health. And while the music Weidman has chosen is frequently uplifting, the choreographer never obliges his dancers to leave their feet. Anyone who has secretly aspired to be a classical dancer might very easily watch Christmas Oratorio and find himself or herself inwardly exclaiming, "I could do that!" as the dancers walk joyously or prayerfully across the stage in decorative formations. The work seems ideally suitable, in other words, for nurturing a community dance ensemble.
So without any hollows visible in her cheeks, Anne Marie Loesch as Mary could hardly be bettered in her meek bearing and her maternal warmth. I actually liked her better than the two lead dancers, Clay Daniel and Mary Beth Cole, who were more than sufficiently precise but not always lithe and relaxed when the music called for spontaneous joy. Daniel's dignity and age worked better for him in those segments where he portrayed Joseph, but Chad Windham's performance – whether portraying Jesus or blending quite competently into the male trio – was puzzling all night. A smiling portrait of Windham was on display in the lobby, yet he resolutely refused to part his lips even slightly until he finally relented when taking his bows. In stark contrast, sunglasses would have been useful in coping with the radiance of Javier Gonzalez's irrepressible smile. Gonzalez was easily the smoothest and most impressive performer all night in various ensemble and backup roles – a very young and fit Lazarus! – graceful and poised even when recovering from one uncharacteristic loss of balance. Nearly his equal in suppleness and spirit was Norma Poplin-Kelly, consistently a joy to watch.
Kathryn Schlee's costumes were startlingly Greco to my taste, but I'll admit they fit the music and the choreographic idiom quite effectively, and George Gray's deft lighting design was executed with nary a misstep. Clearly, the enthusiasm of Mee's labor of love is shared by most of the artists involved in this production. But I'm making my Christmas list for 2012 early and passing it along to CP in hopes that they will spread the joy – to instrumentalists who will play Bach's music, to soloists and choristers who will sing his songs and recitatives, and to audiences who will follow the German text more pleasurably with supertitles. Next year in Halton!
Editor's Note: The entire Christmas Oratorio consists of six full-length cantatas for the season that take about three hours, all told, to traverse. The work was sung, complete, in Durham, earlier this month, to mark the 25th anniversary of the Choral Society's director there, Rodney Wynkoop. For a review of the first half of that two-concert event, click here.