Rev. Robert VerEecke, SJ, right, leads members of the Boston Liturgical Dance Ensemble in a recent rehearsal for "A Dancer's Christmas," which opens at Robsham Theater on Dec. 8. (Photo by Justin Knight)
Besides gaining a new venue and a bevy of enthusiastic, loyal performers, the production would during the next five years also take on a larger scope in relating the history and sacred meaning of Christmas. It also would acquire a name befitting its spiritual and artistic qualities.
Twenty years later, "A Dancer's Christmas" has become a fixture of the Boston holiday season. With a cast almost equal in number to its first audience, the production now offers seven performances over two weekends - Dec. 8-10 and 15-17 this year - to thousands of adults and children from the Greater Boston area and beyond. Acclaimed by media critics, the show also has won over many a skeptical member of the audience.
He is quick to share credit with, and offer praise to, his collaborators, but Fr. VerEecke is the creative force behind "A Dancer's Christmas." A member of the Boston College community for 22 years - his formal title is Jesuit artist-in-residence and director of the Boston Liturgical Dance Ensemble, the University's resident dance ensemble which presents the show - Fr. VerEecke has continually refashioned the show, incorporating a guest performer's special talent or giving the content a topical spin.
For Fr. VerEecke, "A Dancer's Christmas" represents his calling as an artist and a man of God.
"All my activity comes from prayer," said Fr. VerEecke. "It's a very Jesuit thing. When I create, whether it has to do with 'A Dancer's Christmas' or something else, I bring it to prayer. So I can truly give God all the credit for what I have done."
"It's become in effect my celebration of Christmas," said Howard Enoch, the director of Robsham Theater, which has hosted the show every year since opening in 1981. "I've always regarded the show as a cross between a family and a professional event, because it has elements of both. But because Bob is a priest, he brings the sense of it being more than just a dance."
Fr. VerEecke describes the show as "the Christmas story through the ages," the first act relating Hebrew and Christian scripture and the second using medieval and renaissance themes. The third act is more contemporary, he says, offering many familiar Christmas carols.
If the basic structure of the show is constant, other aspects may change from year to year. Last year, for example, Fr. VerEecke decided to integrate the so-called "Y2K anxiety" into the story line: All the adults become so concerned about Y2K they forget about Christmas, he explains, so a child sends an e-mail to God asking for assistance.
Fr. VerEecke also utilizes individual styles and skills among the dancers, whose ranks include both students and professionals, some of whom are BC alumni. Last year and again this year, the show will feature performers steeped in the Irish step-dance tradition, and in past editions there have been dancers from Peru, Australia and other countries.
Some years have been memorable for reasons other than the infusion of guest talent or topical themes. In 1992, the ensemble was fortunate to have a soloist from the renowned Joffrey Ballet Company who had danced works of major choreographers and, Fr. VerEecke recalls, "was very enthusiastic about joining us."
At that time, "A Dancer's Christmas" still took place over one weekend, but the weather wreaked havoc with the scheduled Sunday children's matinee performance. "There was an horrendous rainstorm that gradually turned to snow, and we just weren't sure about canceling," he said. "Only one person came for the show, and he'd brought his son along. We wound up doing it just for them."
It is rare, however, when the show does not play to a full house. The performance schedule has expanded to two weekends, and during the week the ensemble presents the show for area Catholic elementary schoolchildren.
Childhood experiences helped provide a basis of sorts for the artistic development of Fr. VerEecke, a Long Island native who took up dancing at age 5 and, as a fifth-grader, directed his school's Christmas pageant. "One part of that show featured 'O Holy Night,' and all the kids on stage were supposed to 'fall on their knees' when that line was sung," he quipped. "I guess that counts as my first bit of choreography."
In fact, "O Holy Night" figured significantly in a piece Fr. VerEecke introduced one year to the show as a tribute to his late father, an avid singer. It included a recording of him rendering the classic Adolphe Charles Adam composition.
The range of traditional, cultural, religious and familial associations incorporated within "A Dancer's Christmas" is what makes it appeal to so many, said Fr. VerEecke, whether Christian or non-Christian. Even people who would normally eschew "The Nutcracker" or any dance performance have been effusive with their praise, he said.
"The true meaning of this season is the miracle of the birth of Christ," Fr. VerEecke said, "and 'A Dancer's Christmas' seeks to convey the joy and wonder of that miracle.
"I've heard from folks who say they were dragged along, who went as a favor or to keep a promise," he said. "But they find something in the show - whether it's the music, the movement, the story, or simply the whole atmosphere - that touches and moves them."
For more information on "A Dancer's Christmas," visit the Boston Liturgical Dance Ensemble Web page or contact Robsham Theater at ext.2-4800.
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