Many have joyous memories of Christmas, typically from childhood. That sense of youthful elation permeates this year's holiday production from Epiphany DanceArts, Christmas Memories performed at the Courtyard Theatre in Plano.
Presented as a collaboration between the company (founded by Artistic Director Melissa DeGroat in 2010) and Debra Klawetter of Sei Bella Studios, the production intertwines a slideshow of artistically manipulated photographs and text with fifteen dances. Most of the works are ballet with a few venturing into the contemporary realm. Several times throughout the concert, a dancer skims across the stage with a red or white piece of fabric, but the meaning is not clear until the end.
That theme of joy opens the evening with a simple, presentational piece set to a piano rendition of "Joy to the World." The dancers display some lovely picturesque moments as they move through a variety of extensions and piques.
The red fabric takes the spotlight, literally, in "Christmas Memories, Part I." Set to a piano variation of the solemn "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," this mournful solo (performed by DeGroat) reminds us that for some, the memories of Christmas can be difficult.
The concert, however, mostly follows the idea and choreographic direction of the first work. DeGroat tends to focus her creations on clean, straightforward movement relying heavily on classical ballet vocabulary. While those pieces tend to be repetitive, the thoughtfulness and care put into each dance is evident.
Unison choreography drives much of the evening, such as in the brief movement interpretation of "Carol of the Bells," the heavier "Heartbeat" and the finale of "O Holy Night."
Solos are few and far between, but favor a more somber mood set by the second piece. "Breath of Heaven," an intense reflection on the role of Mary in the Christmas story, develops its story through standard ballet movements mixed with contemplative gestures. A second rendition of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," this time with strings, serves as the inspiration for a series of three consecutive solos choreographed by Ivy Koval.
Two related works seem to fit awkwardly with the rest of the program, "Crazy" and "The Note." Set to two songs by Adele, each dance portrays the good and bad emotions of being in love. Donning black tops with a short, shimmery skirt, the barefooted dancers maneuver beyond the movement style of the other works into more of a contemporary jazz. Cute and humorous at times, the pieces are fairly cohesive on their own, but even though Christmas memories can include those of love, these works don't flow with the rest of the concert.
The Christmas Memories from the first solo in the concert continues into the second act with the second, third and fourth parts. The soloist again takes the stage but is joined this time by Jennifer Guess and her daughter Jada. The sorrowful tone from the first part gives way to the childlike wonder which Jada exemplifies, even though the soloist is separated from the duet. Part three continues the wonder as that wall disappears. The final section gives us a hint as to the meaning of the fabric. Each dancer interacts with either the red or white piece in a different way, suggesting that the cloth is a symbol of a memory.
The DanceArtists of Epiphany take great pride and care in their execution of the choreography. Boasting eclectic résumés, each of the dancers brings her own individuality and strength to the performance, whether it's precise technique, emotionally moving expressions, or beautifully suspenseful movement qualities.
While their elegant performances shine through the deliberate, mindful choreography, the concert as a whole feels like it needs time to grow and mature, due mostly to the visual transitions and the overall movement vocabulary.
First, the visual side. The artistic slideshow shown between each piece is meant to add depth to the overall theme of the concert and exemplify a message which complements the company's mission statement. However, the abrupt timing of the music and quick passing of the slides break up the flow, making the concert feel like a string of separate dances which are only related by the subject of the music.
This lack of continuity makes the repetition of ballet vocabulary and mostly unvaried facial expressions monotonous rather than adding to the cohesion of the concert, although more movement variety is still needed in the group pieces. The near absence of choreographic diversity in DeGroat's pieces contrasts with the variations in "What Child Is This" by company director Sally Andriot and "In the First Light" by company member Ashley Moore.
Overall, though, the concert is an admirable attempt. I applaud the company for presenting a family-friendly, uplifting holiday show.