BWW Review: Welcome Yule with A NORDIC CHRISTMAS REVELS at Lisner Auditorium

BWW Review: Welcome Yule with A NORDIC CHRISTMAS REVELS at Lisner AuditoriumA Nordic Christmas Revels 2016 is the third iteration of its kind, originally conceived in 1996 as Northlands and performed once again in 2005. The Washington Revel's Artistic Director and Stage Director, Roberta Gasbarre, a dedicated educator, has directed all three productions. A Nordic Christmas Revels without Gasbarre might well be compared to a Christmas Revels without a "Sussex Mummer's Carol," a staple of every Christmas Revels (except for that one time of which we do not speak).

The beating heart of A Nordic Christmas Revels is the folklore of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Sweden and Norway: the shared epic Kalevala. The audience is introduced to the wild witch Louhi (Sarah Olmsted), who steals the sun and the moon; Ilmata, heaven's daughter; the larger than life bard Väinämöinen (Matthew M. Nelson) and Ilmarinen (William Linder), the eternal blacksmith. Väinämöinen is born of Sky, a large puppet that floats through the center aisles up onto the stage. Tomtenisse (Sasha Vesensky), a mischievous creature of lore, small and elderly with a pointy red cap, makes several guest appearances.

Norwegian Halling dancer, Tom Løvli, a charismatic veteran of the 1996 and 2005 shows, returns to kick the hat. Guest artists Scandia DC Dancers take the stage alongside Løvli to dance the hypnotic "Telespringar" accompanied by Loretta Kelley on the Norwegian hardingfele.

A Nordic Christmas Revels highlights Nordic folk music, instruments and singing techniques unique to Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Finland and Sweden. Merja Soria, a native of Finland, performs ancient rune songs of Finland and accompanies herself on the national instrument of Finland, the five-string kantele ("Väinämöinen's Song" and "Runolaulu (Rune Song)").

Abbie Desrosiers showcases a wordless singing style called tralling, in which the voice imitates the blue notes typically produced by a fiddle ("Blå Tonar Fra Lom (Blue Notes from Lom)." Guest artist Loretta Kelley accompanies Desrosiers on the fiddle.

Performers Liza Lester, Elizabeth Spilsbury, Guenevere Spilsbury, Libby Tipson and Christina Zola Peck demonstrate kulning, a startling, traditional technique used by women to summon animals over long distances. The performers disperse to all corners of the Lisner Auditorium to deliver "high-pitched, intense heralding calls," succesfully recreating an echoing effect native to the valleys and mountains of Norway and Sweden.

Gasbarre's artistic direction is somewhat evocative of the genre of magical realism but is certainly not lacking in the warmth and comfort associated with the holiday season. Many moments at this year's A Nordic Christmas Revels would more rightfully be described as tableaux. "A Woodland Encounter," featuring Lydia Ievins improvising on the traditional Swedish instrument the nyckelharpa (keyed fiddle), is a wordless moment in which our Tomtenisse (Vesensky) meets one friend, a child (Alex Davis), and leaves a present for another, a stag. Although brief, "A Woodland Encounter" contributes immeasurably to the atmospheric integrity of this Nordic production.

A Nordic Christmas Revels recognizes no boundary between audience and artist. For many, the prospect of dancing "The Lord of the Dance" alongside members of the company, every year for over 30 years, is a seasonal comfort akin to wrapping your hands around this season's first mug of hot chocolate.

Part of the charm of The Christmas Revels is that they execute a professional level production without taking themselves too seriously. Veteran song leader and Washington Revels Executive Director Greg Lewis speaks informally to the audience, urging audience participation.

It's obvious by now that tradition is an important aspect of The Christmas Revels. But as much as I enjoy singing "Donna nobis pacem" in round (I really do), I felt that in this case it's inclusion, alongside other select traditionals, struck me as inconsistent with this year's program and distracted from Gasbarre's thoughtfully curated Nordic reverie.

Comprised of 44 musical numbers, this year's Revels is in danger of becoming over-long, Thankfully, Revels is a well-oiled machine and the length of this performance is offset by well researched and refreshing source material. Where else can you find a company whose traditional holiday repertoire features the medieval "Abbots Bromley Horn Dance" or the "Papa Stour Sword Dance," a traditional long-sword dance from the remote island of Papa Stour in the Shetlands, Scotland (both performed by guest artists Cutting Edge Sword). Happily, the mysticism of "Abbots Bromley Horn Dance" and the "Papa Stour Sword Dance" wholly complements the Nordic aesthetic of this year's A Nordic Christmas Revels.

This year's production features over 100 performers, ages 8-85, buoyed by over 100 volunteers. The Revels Company is made up of the Tomtenisse Children, the Solstice Teens, the Yule Singers, the Kalevala Ensemble and Nordic Brass. Colin K. Bills is this year's Production Manager and Music Director Elizabeth Anne Fulford can be seen onstage this year as a company member and section leader.

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission.

The Nordic Christmas Revels runs until December 18th at GW Lisner Auditorium - 730 21st St NW, Washington, DC 20052 . For tickets, visit revelsdc.org or call 1-800-595-4849.

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