On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Guest Host: Sasha-Ann Simons
Maybe it’s watching the Waltz of the Snowflakes at a “Nutcracker” production. Or seeing the seven principles of Kwanzaa embodied in step dance. Or visiting the ghosts of Christmas with Ebenezer Scrooge. Or —
Perhaps you have your own fill-in-the-blank: a performance that’s a central part of your holiday celebration — a tradition you and your family or friends come back to year after year to mark the season.
Many of those performances aren’t just examples of local artistry with a holiday slant. They’re also critical aspects of local arts organizations’ attempts to fill their coffers for the rest of the year and attract new audiences in the process.
What are some of the D.C. region’s most beloved holiday shows, and what keeps people coming back year after year?
Produced by Margaret Barthel
- Julie Kent Artistic Director, The Washington Ballet; @twballet
- Paul Morella Adaptor and Performer, A Christmas Carol
- Sylvia Soumah Artistic Director, Coyaba Dance Theater
SASHA-ANN SIMONSYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show. I'm Sasha-Ann Simons sitting in for Kojo. Welcome. Later in the broadcast is D.C. fashionable? We'll discuss the District's sense of style and how the local fashion industry is growing, but first the curtain is going up on holiday performances around the region.
SASHA-ANN SIMONSFor many people, perhaps you too, music, theater, dance and other art forms are a big part of celebrating the season with family and friends. That's good news for local arts organizations. Many of them depend on holiday productions to bolster their budgets and introduce new audience members to their work. What are the some of the D.C. area's most beloved holiday performances and how do they stay true to the traditional stories they tell and keep the show fresh every year? Joining me to discuss is Julie Kent. She's the Artistic Director of the Washington Ballet, prior to that she was the longest serving ballerina at the American Ballet Theater. Hi, Julie.
SIMONSSylvia Soumah is the Artistic Director at Coyaba Dance Theater. Welcome to the show, Sylvia.
SYLVIA SOUMAHThank you.
SIMONSAnd Paul Morella is the Adaptor and Performer of a one man performance of "A Christmas Carol." Welcome back, Paul.
PAUL MORELLAGreat to be here.
SIMONSJulie, let's start with you. The Washington Ballet is in the middle of a 40 show run of "The Nutcracker," one of the most well-known ballets out there. What's special about the Washington Ballet's Nutcracker production?
KENTWell, this production is set in historic Georgetown and we have many local figures that give the production a very charming scene. We welcome Frederick Douglas to the Christmas party. And in the battle scene, King George III is the Rat King. George Washington is the Nutcracker. We have Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison and Harriet Tubman among the dolls.
SIMONSWow, a very D.C. spin.
KENTExactly. The Cherry Blossoms represent the "Waltz of the Flowers" and the Cardinals represent the typical Marzipan Dance. Yeah.
SIMONSAwesome. How long has the Washington Ballet been dancing "The Nutcracker?"
KENTWell, Mary Day staged -- the Co-founder of the Washington Ballet, Mary Day and Lisa Gardner, they staged the first production of "The Nutcracker" in 1961. Well, before it became the sort of Americana that it is now. This production choreographed by Septime Webre is in its 16th season at the Warner Theater.
SIMONSPaul, you're also taking a classic and putting your own spin on it. In this case you've adapted the text of "A Christmas Carol" into a one man show, which is pretty awesome and it's very different from a lot of other theatrical takes on the story, which usually involve a whole cast. So tell us how you arrived at the one man show concept?
MORELLAWell, the interesting thing is that and what a lot of people didn't realize is that Dickens actually wrote it to be presented by one person. And he would do reading tours of it himself. In fact, he even did a performance at Carol Hall in Washington D.C. a number of years ago. So the text itself, lends itself to performance. The narration morphs into characters. As an Adaptor I've really mostly just sort of moved things around a little bit trimming some of the excess, some of the sentimentally and letting Dickens take center stage and letting his prose take off. And as is the case with all of these artistic endeavors, when your imagination is brought to bear on it, it runs wild. And that's the beauty of this is it takes these great characters and this great prose and it lets the audience's imagination take it into other places.
MORELLASo I interpret the characters, but I don't flesh them out to the extent that the work is done for the audience. And it really works, because it's 99 percent Dickens himself, his own words.
SIMONSAnd what about your own performance, how has that evolved over the years?
MORELLABecause Olney theater has undergone transitions over the years -- every year we take it apart and put it back together, and try to address it in a way that keeps it fresh for the audience right now. And I've had different people look at it, different people collaborate. It's almost been a sort of communal experience from production elements as well as the performance as well as the audience. The audience plays a big part in this in terms of their feedback, in terms of the people that come back that bring other people, that stumble in -- as I was telling Julie earlier, there are people that stumble in for the first time not even aware that it's one person.
SIMONSAnd they're like, what is this?
MORELLAExactly, what have I gotten myself into?
SIMONSI know that's what I would say.
MORELLAYeah, it's so difficult to wrap your head around it, because it's sort of like I sort of refer to it as kind of the anti-Ford's Theater version. And I don't mean that in a negative way. I just mean that it's the opposite end of the spectrum. And yet it still works on its own. And it's a very very powerful, different tale than a lot of people think "A Christmas Carol" is.
MORELLAIt's Dickens. It's dark. It's bleak, and then that makes the radiant experience all that much more brilliant when you reach that point.
SIMONSSylvia, the Coyaba Dance Theater, which you lead, performs a Kwanzaa Celebration of West African dance every year in December. The structure changes from year to year, but the show is always grounded in the principles that are associated with Kwanzaa. How do you experience those principles through dance?
SOUMAHWell, through dance -- West African dance, it deals with daily life. So it deals with birth. It deals with death. It deals with ...
SOUMAHYeah. To celebration. So, you know, it's very easy to adapt those dances to the principles of Kwanzaa, the seven principles of Kwanzaa.
SIMONSHow long have you been putting on the "Kwanzaa Celebration" show?
SOUMAHFor about 15 years, 15 years now.
SIMONSYeah, and the idea grew out of, I understand, a recent trip that you took to Ghana. What are you exploring in the celebration this year and how did the trip sort of inform that plan?
SOUMAHWell, this year was is the year of return. So it's four African Americans of African descent to go back to Ghana to live and purchase property there. So a lot of African Americans are now moving to Ghana and buying, you know, real estate in Ghana. So many many years ago I went to Senegal, The Door of No Return. So the first half of the show is The Door of No Return, you know, when we were enslaved. The second half is The Year of Return. So we're going to do Senegalese Mali dance in the first half. And in the second half we're going to do Ghanan dances.
SIMONSAnd when you say that a lot of Americans are moving back, do you find that happening here in this region too?
SOUMAHThere's a lot of African Americans that are from D.C. that are living, moving to Ghana or have, you know, dual citizenship.
SIMONSPaul, similar question to you. Do you find that your performances of "A Christmas Carol" vary from year to year? And do they depend on sort of what's on in your life or what's happening in the world at that particular moment?
MORELLAOh, absolutely. And in fact, that's a big reason why we are not content to just sort of remount it. We certainly experiment with different production elements, although the key is kind of maintaining the integrity of the original story. So we don't want it to get too big, but lot of times we want it to get more immersive, get bigger by staying small. And definitely exploring all of the different sort of ramifications of what's happening in the political world, in the world at large, how it dialogues with that. The interesting thing is people who come back they will have a different experience depending on where they are in their lives at that point in time.
MORELLASome people may think that we've made radical changes. It's sort of like, no, we haven't, but you've changed, and so it speaks to you in a different way, which I think goes back to that wonderful wonderful text, which Dickens had that awareness of how it's going to reinvent itself every year.
SIMONSAnd with the text being so old do you have -- are there historical references or historical attitudes that you've had to sort of edit out or deemphasize, because maybe it wouldn't make sense today?
MORELLAOnly some of the language that may be a little anachronistic to the modern ear, but there's a musicality to the language, I mean, he wrote it with a rhythm in a cadence that's almost like a song, one long song, and because of that there's a flow to the language. So if you change something or make it to contemporary it loses that rhythm. So the key is to kind of try to maintain the integrity of the piece. And the audience I think goes a long with it and they get it. They understand it. The language isn't so dense that you have a difficult time or it takes you out of it, but it actually is something where you get it. You understand it and you can extrapolate from there in terms of how it informs the present.
SIMONSRight. And we want to hear from you as well. We welcome your thoughts. Are you excited to see the same performance year after year as a tradition or do you prefer to mix it up? I know "The Nutcracker" is one of those things on my list. That's for sure. Julie, it's not exactly a modern creation and there are a few aspects of the story, of the ballet, that could feel outdated or even offensive to some people. There's a Chinese Tea dance. And the Washington Ballet version also includes a dance that's meant to represent the Anacostia Tribe. Tell us how you stayed true to the work without caricaturing those cultures.
KENTRight. I think exactly that word you use, caricature or character. I think making sure that you're representing a culture with respect and sensitivity is at the heart of what global mandate is. So our "Chinese dance," which is called so by how Tchaikovsky wrote the music. That's how it was entitled, represents -- there's a fish and a young fisher boy and some Chinese ribbon dancers. The rhythmic gymnasts that originated in China and some twirling umbrellas and there's also an organization, "Final Bow for Yellow Face," that as an Artistic Director I have signed a pledge to ensure that Asian culture is presented with respect.
KENTAs far as the Anacostia Indian, I think that we as well embracing the sentiment of respect for cultural representation we did reach out to the National Museum of the American Indian as well as other museums. The Anacostia Tribe was sort of disappeared somewhere around 1600s. So I think there's certainly an emphasis just to give some local color and sense of history of this area, but it's not really meant to be an authentic representation of a group of people that none of us really know too much about as far as their dress or ways.
SIMONSSo you've made tweaks to choreographer or costumes to be more ...
KENTThe costume, yes, mostly the make-up. I think that make-up -- and if you look throughout history that's where the character and caricature comes in to play. And so for the Anacostia dance in particular there was --part of the original costume design included red paint over the eyes for the man. And it just didn't seem necessary anymore. And if it somehow offended somebody, why bring that into the theater where you're trying to just enjoy and celebrate humanity. So that's gone. And any sort of make-up in our Chinese dance that, again, sort of appropriates how people look. It's not necessary to enjoy that dance. So it's gone.
SIMONSUnderstood. If you're just tuning in we're talking with Julie Kent. She's the Artistic Director of the Washington Ballet. Sylvia Soumah, the Artistic Director at Coyaba Dance Theater. And Paul Morella the Adaptor and Performer of a one man performance of "A Christmas Carol." Sylvia, you said that as an African American sort of putting together this "Kwanzaa Celebration," it helps you reconnect with the continent. Can you expand on that?
SOUMAHIt's different when you learn West African dance here. But when you go see it there, when we represent -- they squat -- they do a lot of things very low. You know, our stove is above. We go throw our clothes in the washing machine. No they're washing it. They're doing it by hand. So, you know, they're working with the mortar and pestle. They're pounding, you know, the mill. So it's very different. Then you dance differently, because ...
SIMONSSo everything is rooted. Sort of lots of knees and lots of ...
SOUMAHLots of knees. Lots of bending.
SIMONSEverything is low.
SOUMAHAnd jumping. And yeah, it's a lot going on.
SIMONSYeah, I started with African when I was -- well, I started with Jamaican folk dance and then sort of went into West African dance when I was a teenager. So I kind of -- I get the sense of what that looks like and feels like, it's very strenuous too, can be.
SOUMAHWhat I like is Africa has 54 countries. Everybody thinks everybody performs the same dance. They do not. Within one country there can be 10 different ethnic groups and they all have their own dance. Another thing that I love about African dance as well, you can be age three or you can be age 95. We never stop dancing, our career is never over. And that's one of the things I really love about it.
SIMONSThat's awesome. Though the art form at the center of your shows is traditionally African dance you also want to make a point, Sylvia, that the production is open to performers, who don't necessarily have that heritage. Why did you make that choice?
SOUMAHWell, I think the best way for anybody to learn about someone is to invite them into your space. So I don't care what color you are, like I said you can be white, black, Asian. We represent a lot of different people in that stage. But when we come together you see us as one family, one cohesive family. We're all united, like Umoja, unity. We all unite, and uniting through dance and music and culture.
SIMONSHow young is the youngest performer, three?
SOUMAHThree years old.
SIMONSThree years old and your oldest?
SOUMAHThis year it's -- the oldest probably is 68.
SOUMAHBut we've had 95, the oldest person, when I was teaching at the Washington Ballet at the Arch, one of the performers, she was 93 years old.
SIMONSAmazing. Amazing. Paul, one of the unique features of your version of "A Christmas Carol" is that you actively cultivate a connection with your audience. Even when they walk into the theater, you're the person that's showing them to their seats. Why is that audience experience important to you?
MORELLAWell, you know, the way that evolved -- when I first did the show 11 years ago it was self-produced at a small little venue in Gaithersburg. And I had a very limited budget and I could not afford to hire anybody for front of house or for when people leave, to seat people. So I had to do it myself. And at first I would start to do it as Dickens, but then people would come up to me and they'd say, well, how's your mom, and this and that. And I couldn't maintain that. And I thought, well, you know, strip away all the artifice and just greet them as you are, a Dickensian version of myself. Seat them, it helps with the informality. It makes it something that's very very comfortable and chatting with them doing the preshow announcements. I'm there when they leave.
MORELLASo a lot of these things sort of evolved fortuitously and I decided to keep them because people really enjoy it. And it's great to interact with them. People sometimes think with a one person show that, you know, you don't have anybody else to interact with. Quite the contrary, because you don't have other characters on stage you have to connect with the audience. They become the person that you dialogue with constantly.
MORELLASo you need them. I will say that this -- I mean, cast parties are dull for one thing.
MORELLABut it's very difficult to rehearse, because you can't do it to empty seats. It needs an audience. And whenever you have that kind of need there's that urgency.
SIMONSDo you bounce your lines off someone when you're rehearsing?
MORELLAYes. I try to. I try to pull in people to just sit there, please, because sometimes the designers, particularly, they've been there year after year. They're doing their thing. And, you know, to try to pull some reaction out of an empty seat just really doesn't work.
SIMONSThat's a little tough. Julie, for many local arts organizations including the Washington Ballet holiday performances can be a big boost to the budget. Tell us how important "The Nutcracker" is to enabling the Washington Ballet's season for the rest of the year.
KENT"The Nutcracker" is a huge part of our annual budget. And it basically helps make possible all of our other presentations at the Kennedy Center, at the Harman Center and at the Warner Theater where we'll be performing in May. I think, you know, "The Nutcracker," not only does it represent that huge boost to our annual income. But it's an extraordinary opportunity for our professional dancers and the students in our school to have -- for any performer opportunity is a gift. So to have 40 performances to measure your growth and that's what sort of our mindset is. As dancers we're -- I think we've always been sort of given a hard rep as perfectionists, and it's really not the case.
KENTWe're really just committed to the pursuit of improvement. And each day you embrace with a growth mindset and embrace the opportunity that you can do something just a little bit better, but if you don't have the opportunity to do that then it's hard to move forward. And so all these performances allow our dancers to make great leaps in technical virtuosity and sensitive artistry, and for our students to really understand the level of commitment and discipline and devotion that you need, just a glimpse of it, to have a professional career.
SIMONSSylvia, is the "Kwanzaa Celebration" a revenue driver for you too and do you see it as a way to get a broader audience excited about West African dance?
SOUMAHI wish it was a revenue one for me.
SOUMAHWell, I mean, it's an act of love.
SOUMAHBut we're sold out already.
SIMONSAnd it's a beautiful show.
SOUMAHAnd it's a great show. And we had three shows last year. I just couldn't do it this year. So I decided just to do two, but you can still probably still get a few tickets, but definitely, it makes a little bit.
SIMONSYeah. You make a little coin.
SOUMAHI make a little coin. (laugh)
SIMONSThis one is for all of you before we go. Paul, I'll start with you. Local arts organizations may get a boost around the holidays, but there are great productions that are going on in this area year round. Tell us what's coming up on your calendars in the New Year.
MORELLAI'm going to be doing a show at Mosaic Theater that's sort of loosely based on the Vidal, Buckely debates back in the Republican and Democratic conventions in the 60s. And then I'll be doing a play called "Compulsion" at Theater J that files Meyer Levin, who was the person that introduced Anne Frank's Diary to this country and was originally commissioned to write the stage adaptation, but then there were issues with Otto Frank. Things like that so it's a fascinating story of obsession and compulsion.
MORELLASo very different affair from "A Christmas Carol."
SOUMAHWell, I'll be traveling to Guinea West Africa to be in a video with a former member of Les Ballet Africains. So we're doing an instructional video. I'll be in Guinea for two weeks.
SOUMAHThen I come back and I'm going to go to Ghana to study dance of the Ga people.
SIMONSAnd bring us those fresh moves.
SOUMAHAll of them.
SIMONSYes. And what about you, Julie?
KENTWell, this season marks the 75th anniversary of the Washington School of Ballet, so we have been celebrating this milestone throughout the season, but it will culminate in an alumni reunion weekend. During our performances of the Balanchine Ashton program at the Kennedy Center February 19 through 23rd. Following that in April my husband, Victor Barbee and myself will be doing a new staging of "Swan Lake" for the company to be performed at the Kennedy Center April 9 through 19. And then we finish up the season back at the Warner Theater in May, also with a new staging by Victor and myself of the family friendly ballet, "Coppelia."
SIMONSExcellent. Julie Kent, Sylvia Soumah and Paul Morella, thanks so much for joining.
SIMONSThe Kojo Nnamdi Show returns after a short break. Stay tuned.
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