Dance, then, wherever you may be...
Most of us, when asked to describe a Revels performance, probably start with the singing. We tell people about the lovely choruses of adults and children, the audience participation and the contributions of the professionals and tradition bearers that perform with us. We might even branch out into a description of the Mummers play or some of the stories that we tell and perform. What we don’t get to so quickly is the dancing. When we do, most likely we’ll launch into a description of the audience linking up for “Lord of the Dance” at midpoint in the Christmas Revels. As iconic and powerful as that image may be, there’s much more to dance and its relationship to reveling.
I’m fond of describing Revels as a celebration of the ways that people through the ages have observed the big events in their lives - the turning of the seasons, the mystery of creation, the joy of community – whatever seemed important and somehow beyond the reach of ordinary description. The “ways” refer to the modes of celebration, and dance, along with music and storytelling, completes the trinity of Revels modes.
Under the general rubric of “dance”, there are several different categories. One of the most powerful is the participatory dance, where we basically dissolve the boundary between performer and audience, creating one “village” of revelers, stepping in common time to a pattern of music and figures. In this category would be line dances like the Patchpi we performed at the Summer Solstice Gala, spiral dances, the Maypole dance and of course the emblematic Lord of the Dance.
My favorite of this type is the Flora dance or Helston Furry. We dance it in our May Day and Summer Solstice celebrations. Our Town Band provides a very creditable rendition of the actual Helston arrangement of the tune as long lines of coupled dancers swagger and prance their way around the green. It combines communal awareness and cooperative effort with light physical exertion and distills it into just plain fun.
Revels also presents social dancing on stage. In these instances, the stepping and patterns are intricate enough to require a certain amount of training and rehearsal, and so the audience could not be readily brought into the act. For example, the courtly dances we perform in the medieval and renaissance shows, the summer garland dance, or the polka in last year’s Bavarian Revels are recreations of dances that admittedly would have been performed by amateurs, but ones who were steeped in the tradition of that particular form of dance. They appear as performance in order to evoke a sense of the period, as well as to transmit to the audience a kinesthetic sense of celebration and belonging.
Finally, there are “show” dances. We feature Morris and sword in many Revels performances, sometimes as standalone dances and sometimes as part of a mumming or storytelling ritual. In the Scandinavian show, two dancers competed in a Halling dance which involved kicking a hat off the end of a pole held above the dancer’s head. Pierre Chartrand and Kalia Kliban clogged their way through a dance competition at the climax of the Quebecois show, and of course the Irish show dazzles the audience with accomplished step dancing performed by highly trained artists. On this level, the dance is performed to display a certain virtuosity that neither audience nor chorus could likely master, but which has an optimal and inspirational quality about it. It is folk art elevated to, if not the realm of high art, at least to a level of luminescence that reflects back upon the audience a perfected sense of their own culture.
And then we have the Abbots Bromley horn dance.
Performed in the Christmas Revels as a moment of dark stillness, it has acquired an almost reverential quality. It is a self-asserting ritual moment that has become highly anticipated, and even first time viewers find themselves affected by the rapt appreciation with which it is generally beheld by experienced audience members. Great care is lavished on the stepping and even the mental preparation of the dancers. It is always performed to the same hypnotic tune; it is always danced by a team of males; and it is always performed with solemnity and intention. Clearly it is elevated ritual of the most reverent and evocative sort.
Except when it’s not. In the Parish of Abbots Bromley, where it all began, they dance the thing to a wide variety of tunes, both popular and traditional. The stepping is casual, and by the end of ten miles of traipsing through fields and village streets, the entire enterprise bears more than passing resemblance to a pub crawl. And yes, reliable sources report that women have stepped in for sidelined male dancers and locked horns with the regulars.
In this country, the dance has become a staple of summer music camps, where it is danced by whole families and even by teams of children. The patterns and stepping vary, instrumentation and tempi differ, but still the piece attracts dancers and speaks to them on some deeper level. Clearly, the power of this particular ritual stems more from its age and basic iconography than from the particular style in which it is presented.
The Abbots Bromley dance transcends the various categories of dancing and functions effectively at each level. It is show dancing, as well as participatory dancing; it is contemplative as well as celebratory. And it is this transcendent quality that we expect will enliven our celebration this coming Wakes Monday (you may know it as Labor Day).
Plan to be there and plan to participate. This is your chance to join in a centuries-old tradition, and also your chance to be part of a brand-new tradition, the First Annual Abbots Bromliad.
- David Parr, Artistic Director
Illustration copyright Hrana Janto, used by permission of the artist.