Keepers of the Flame
Tradition is an essential element of Revels. It certainly informs our performances and defines the very character of the organization. You’ll find it among our core values. An important way we connect with traditions is by bringing into our fold groups or individuals we refer to as “tradition bearers”.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard this term actually defined in Revels circles.
It is one of those “you know one when you see one” phenomena. Each year, particularly as we plan the Christmas Revels, we seek out performers who can vest our production with depth, cultural insight, and above all a sense of authenticity. As Artistic Director, I rely on those groups and individuals whose lived experience of a culture goes far beyond my own studied efforts to approximate and reenact the traditions. Over the years, we have accumulated a truly stunning roster of these “keepers of the flame”.
My own first experience of a Revels tradition bearer was in the person of Dimitri Pokrovsky. He and his Pokrovsky Ensemble, students of Russian and Siberian folkways, took part in a Revels that juxtaposed Russian and rustic American customs. I was struck by Dimitri’s ability to engage an audience not only with his charisma and native wit, but also with the sheer power of his connection to the material. One highlight of the performance was a rendition of a Russian folk play, much like the familiar Mummers’ play, which was rendered in rapid fire Russian. While the audience was absolutely clueless as to the meaning of the words, the rhythms of the speech and physicality of the performance brought down the house. We felt that something very old, with a deep and complex heritage was living right there on our stage.
That is really what a tradition bearer does. He or she does not suggest or describe a tradition in the way an actor might, but rather shares with us a convincing experience of the song, dance or ritual in such a way that it lifts us out of our distanced viewership and propels us into the world of the tradition itself.
Having made that extravagant claim for the power of the tradition bearer, I must bring up a perception that I’ve always found amusingly naive, although thoroughly understandable. I’m talking about the idea that a tradition bearer must somehow not only be steeped in the tradition which they represent, but also must have grown up solely within the confines of that (usually isolated) society, and even view the modern world through that cultural lens. Bonus points are awarded if the individual also lived in the actual period that we are depicting.
Of course, much of this definition verges on the absurd. For example, it would be difficult to find an available tradition bearer with actual lived experience of any society prior to the early 20th century. Our Elizabethan show would have been even more difficult to mount if we felt that Will Kemp could only be portrayed by an authentic 500-year-old Elizabethan actor. Geoff Hoyle was our tradition bearer in that instance, and his deeply explored and highly crafted mastery of the clowning arts provided the authenticity and grounding that made the show ring true.
Pierre Chartrand is another example that helps define this species of performer. The headliner of our Quebecois Revels several years ago, Pierre possesses elfin charm and nimble feet married to a keen mind and an exhaustive knowledge of Quebecois dance. He is a college professor, and while he lives in Quebec and is a passionate student of traditional French Canadian culture, he is very much a modern man. Still he is a tradition bearer, and quite capable of opening up our experience of another time and place.
Jean Ritchie would probably come closest to what you might assume about a tradition bearer’s background. She grew up in Appalachia, a member of a family of traditional singers, and is something of a “Songcatcher” herself. Jean’s performance in the 1993 Christmas Revels was redolent with the imagery and anecdotal narrative of a life lived within the Appalachian culture that we were presenting.
Probably the bonanza for tradition bearers was our 1999 Scandinavian show. As narrator, I had engaged the services of my friend Harry Siitonen, an authority on the Nordic creation myth, the Kalevala,. This legend (and other assorted high jinx) was enacted by the Karelian Folk Ensemble, led by the inimitable Igor Bykadorov. There were specialty dancers, including the Nordahl Grieg dancers, Karin Brennesvik and Tom Lovli from Sweden, Toby Weinberg on Nicklharp, vocal soloist Ruth Sylte, and the Swedish Hardanger fiddle player, Leif Alpso. And oh yes, we featured the usual complement of Morris, chorus and children. I think our stage is still bowed and sagging from all of the tradition that was born in that show.
As I sift through the long list of tradition bearers that have graced the Revels stage over the years, I am struck by their variety, their artistry, their depth of knowledge, and especially by just how many of them there are. I won’t even attempt to list them all here, but you can learn more about several of them in the ranks of the California Revels Artistic Associates.
With an eye toward this year’s setting in the Bavarian Alps, I have called upon the Almenrausch Shuplattlers, several Alpen horn players and even Heilige Nickolaus himself to provide an authentic experience. This December, as always, you can look forward to songs, stories, dances and drama made real by the Revels tradition bearers.
- David Parr, Artistic Director