The Washington Revels’ 2013 offering Echoes of Thrace is a beautiful, detailed exploration of several ancient cultures of the world that are less known in our usual Christmas celebrations. Revels itself is a unique operation. The Washington Revels is one of ten cities that mount these elaborate productions of singers, actors, dancers, and musicians to celebrate musical traditions the world over.
This year they visit Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey through several ages of music, which also means they visit Olympus, the Greek Gods and their legends, the ancient country of Thrace, the Ukraine, Constantinople, Serbia, Evros, and more. They also sing many of the traditional songs sung at every revels like “Lord of the Dance,” “Dona Nobis Pacem,” and the “Sussex Mummers Carol,” most of which the audience sings along to from the music in the program or by heart after 30 years of Revels here.
In contrast to past years, this outing is a great deal more focused on the music and less on any story or actor. The only extensive speaking role is the poet Morgan Duncan as Orpheus who spins the tale of Jason and the Argonauts and quotes from other epic poems in the style of Greek drama. The rest of it is a concert of music from the region, mostly sung in the original language, while two different dance companies circle the stage in traditional dances. Byzantio is a Greek folk-dance ensemble that excels at the rhythmic lines of dancing steps and Zharava is a Bulgarian ensemble. The two styles share a common history, it’s clear, but it was fun to see the different dances and costumes of the two countries.
That is the mark of every part of this piece, the incredible attention to detail in the music, in the body language and dancing, and in the costumes for this 80-person ensemble of adult, teen and children singers and actors. The women are dressed in black dresses and white blouses that are enlivened considerably by patterned aprons, jingling coin necklaces and brilliant scarves and flowers in their hair. The men wear traditional loose trousers with vests and furs and giant boots of the region. The set is a simple hut in a simple village, with large multi-colored tapestries providing the Christmas decorations rather than holly and ivy.
In addition to the dance troupe, they brought on several different musical troupes as well. The Karpouzi Trio, Lyuti Chushki, Balkan Brass, hand bell players, and other guests played huge drums and haunting flute melodies, and sang in the unique style of the region through many songs, often tramping into the audience to for a call and response all around the auditorium that sounded so beautiful, especially on the opening “The Journey to the Sun” where all musicians got involved. The melodies are fast in unusual keys and time, and show both eastern and western influences in their quick rhythms and chanted style. Another highlight is two songs sung first by the women with “Polegnala e Tudora” and then the men singing alone in “Domakine, Sipi Vino Da Pieme.”
Music Director Elizabveth Fulford has a huge job this year with the music heavy program. Especially on these two, her steady hand is evident. The children’s chorus are also featured in song and dance, especially on the clever “Prela Baba” which has them dancing around the stage as little kittens. Greg Lewis, the Executive Director of Revels, led the audience participation throughout, but it is especially fun on “Dirlada” which has the whole auditorium rowing in their seats and singing chanted lines as Spyros Koliavasilis from the Karpouzi Trio sang the response.
All in all, long-time Artistic Director and the production’s director Roberta Gasbarre has her hands full. At any one time there could be over 125 people on the stage. She does a great job creating interest and exploring each song in this very musical production, especially for “Final Gathering,” the culmination of the evening as everyone in the company sang and danced through the audience.
All is not too serious however, and they spent a lot of time exploring Christmas traditions from the region that were entirely foreign to me, like little Goblins called Kallikantzaroi who only come out one a year at Christmas to be banished again, and an absolutely outlandish costume called a Kukeri, which looked something like a bear wearing a very tall, strange hat and huge bells, as well as a camel or a Kamila, which is similarly strange and hilarious. In addition to all of the songs, it was fun to explore these unfamiliar, yet clearly beloved rituals.
All in all, this year they take their reveling seriously – delving into deep history, culture and tradition all the while twirling around the stage in brightly patterned costumes to dances that seemed as old as time. I felt gifted at the end, grateful to live in this city that supports Revels, and grateful to see a glimpse of these traditions, ancient and strange, fun and familiar, all put on by these ridiculously talented performers. It was a moving, enlightening evening.
Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
The Christmas Revels‘ Echoes of Thrace plays through tomorrow – December 15, 2013 at Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University -730 21st Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call 1-800-595-4849, or purchase them online.
The Washington Revels’ website.