Wassailing in Oakland

Wassailing in Oakland

The multicultural California Revels invokes the storytelling and spirit of the holidays.

“A one and a two and a three and a four…,” Montreal dance-master Pierre Chartrand calls out to some 20 dancers of the California Revels, the Oakland-based music and theater production that has presented multicultural holiday entertainments since 1986. Since this year’s celebration will focus on traditions from Quebec, he is teaching them a quadrille, the social dance that came to the New World from 18th-century France.

Despite casual plaid shirts, sweats and jeans, the dancers, rehearsing at Piedmont’s Wildwood Elementary School on a mid-October Sunday afternoon, look remarkably at ease with the quadrille’s stately walks and formal patterns: squares, circles, serpentines and men-facing-women lines. Once in a while, small stomps and hiccups for the feet seem to intrude. It turns out that Quebec also has a substantial Irish population who wove elements of their own dances into this Canadian version of the quadrille. Celebrating the interlacing layers of cultures lies at the core of the Revels movement; California Revels is one of 10 scattered across the country.

Founded in 1971 in Cambridge, Mass., Revels was very much a child of its time. Medieval scholars like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien had become famous, not for the researching of faded manuscripts, but for their vivid fantasy literature—The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings—which buried Christian messages deep inside colorful narratives. At the same time, Joseph Campbell’s monumental study of mythologies had shown that modern religions had superimposed their creeds and rituals onto much earlier belief systems. Christmas, for instance, was placed around the winter solstice because the return of the sun signaled the beginning of a new life cycle.

While the national organization provides models for the Christmas Revels, the Oakland organization has also originated its own productions. Galician explored northwestern Spain, the place where, according to Celtic mythology, souls gather to follow the sun across the sea. Its cabuezos (heads) and gigantes (giants), huge papier-mâché puppets still in use in Galicia, told the story of Santiago, whose head had miraculously traveled to Compostela. His burial place has attracted pilgrims, and their modern descendants—hikers—since the Middle Ages.

Meso-American opened with the Aztec creation myth and showed how the mother goddess, Tonanzin, evolved into the Virgin of Guadalupe. Included was a Tree of Life celebration and a re-enactment of the Posada in which pilgrims (Joseph and Mary) go from house to house looking for a place to stay.

Janice McMillan has been with the California Revels since the beginning. She and her husband encountered Revels while living in Boston. They were looking for a holiday entertainment. “We bought tickets the first year,” she fondly remembers, “and just loved everything about it.” The die was cast when they moved to California. “My children,” she says—they have three—“would not know what Christmas is, were it not for the Revels. Sure, I have taken them to Nutcracker, but that’s the same thing every year. For the holidays, we do Revels.”

When her children were young, they participated in the kids’ group, taking on small roles and, of course, liking the dress-up opportunities. Today the whole McMillan clan sings in the chorus, still enjoying the transformation into gentle ladies and rustic townspeople. McMillan also cooks for the rehearsals. “Sharing food creates community,” she says.

While the Christmas Revels program changes every year, certain ingredients are fixed. A griot figure tells stories of old. Children have their moment on stage. A communal singing and dancing of “The Lord of the Dance” ends the first act; the “Sussex Mummers” carol closes the pageant. Thematically the shows often revolve around traveling—pilgrims, adventurers, royal courts. This year the characters are simple hunters. And there have to be merrymakers and clowns and jesters and a dragon. And, of course, dances.

Carol-singing is both in English—which has one of the richest troves of any language—and the language of whatever culture is being celebrated. “We don’t have to learn the languages,” McMillan explains. “We just have to pronounce the words correctly.”

The Revels is not without critics. Artistic Director David Parr knows of the objections leveled at his organization as being too closely tied to an established religion. “This is just not accurate,” he explains. “Our shows are celebrations of community. We bring traditional material to life in performance. We celebrate the manifold ways that humans have found to express the experience of life on the planet: the songs, the dances, the dramas and the ceremonies. All around the world, people have felt a need to get together when the days are shortest and the nights very long.” Parr clearly feels that Revels fills a need. These winter solstice celebrations put a foundation underneath holiday traditions at a time when some of the well-worn rituals have outlived their meaning for large parts of the population.

A professor of theater arts at City College in San Francisco, Parr has been with the California Revels for 16 years. He has learned to be a multi-tasker. He researches, writes, directs, performs and juggles the show’s $200,000 budget, of which the organization raises a very respectable 80 percent from tickets sales. Sets and costumes—reworked from year to year for the cast of up to 100—are professionally designed. To supplement the volunteer performers, Parr hires soloist singers and musicians to play authentic instruments. If that means importing a nyckelharpa (a string instrument with keys) player from Sweden and a hardingfele (a violin with resonating strings) musician from Norway for the Nordic Christmas Revels (based on the pre-Christian Kalevala, the Finnish national epic), so be it. This year he is bringing David Cahn, a squeezebox player from Seattle. He also needed a devil. He found one in Morris dancer Kalia Kliban in Sebastopol.

While dragons often appear in Revels shows, devils are less common. But in this year’s story about a group of backcountry hunters who desperately long for the comfort of their families, the devil plays a crucial role. He offers the men a deal. He will get them home in time for the holidays if they don’t drink, don’t swear and arrive on time. Of course, they don’t keep to any of it. When the devil comes to claim their souls, the village priest suggests an alternative. Instead of taking these poor drunken wretches, why not get a better specimen of the village’s manhood? All he has to do is engage one of them in a dance contest. The devil agrees—to his chagrin.

Watching these dancers rehearse on this gray Sunday afternoon, one can’t help but notice the motley composition of this group. They are nurses, teachers, students, homemakers and lab administrators. Ranging from their teens to their 40s, many revelers participate in folk dance groups the rest of the year. One of the youngest is 16-year-old Tyler Parrott, a sophomore at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland. His parents used to take him to Revels. When he saw an older friend in the show five years ago, he and his best buddy decided to audition. “It’s always just so much fun, and these are such great people,” he says. “It’s also music which I like and play, anyway.” So what happens after he graduates? “If I go to college in a city where they have Revels, I’ll join.”

Working on the “Brandy Dance,” rhythmically more intricate than the quadrille, Chartrand has the dancers individually tap out the patterns. He wants a crisp, clean sound. Beautiful to watch is Parrott’s and the other dancers’ concentration, as they will their feet to do Chartrand’s bidding.

They revel in the fact that dance, like all tradition, is still being passed from one person to another, one generation to the next.

Christmas Revels 2006: A Theatrical Celebration of the Winter Solstice, Dec. 8-10, 15-17, Scottish Rite Theater, 1547 Lakeside Drive, Oakland. Visit www.calrevels.org or call (510) 452-3800.

Rita Felciano is The Monthly’s dance critic.

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