Roger Lee Dance Company’s Christmas Celebration

by Lewis Whittington for The Dance Journal  | photo credit Frank Bicking

Dancer-choreographer Roger Lee and guest performers warmed up a frigid mid- December weekend at the newly renovated Performance Garage for a concert mix of choreography set to holiday pop songs, seasonal music and traditional African American spirituals.

Lee’s opening number ‘Waiting for Santa’ set Mariah Carey’s rendition to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ with Lee leading his troupe –Vanessa Giordana, Jasmine Newsome, Donielle Turner and Jasmine Zook, in a white dance-suit and the women in tunics hemmed with faux fur that flared out when they spun around, perfect costumes to go with the Lee’s frothy jazz styles reminiscent of tv variety shows of the 60s & 70s.

The holiday spirit carried over to the dance comedy that followed for a cluby remix version of “Dance of the Elves” choreographed by Jasmine Zook. Six dancers play the elves scurrying around in quick-step chases that end in trips or pirouette runs that spin out of control, but Zook also laces in sharp unison phrases and petit jetes to keep everyone guessing.

“Caroling” set to an instrumental version of ‘Carol of the Bells’ a modern dance trio choreographed by Lee, which he performed with Newsome and Turner. There are hints of Lee’s more adventurous style, (liberated from lyric driven songs) but leaning too much on predictable modern vocabulary and flash dance moments.

Sonia Pennington’s more somber trio, “Surrendering Faith” followed.  Danced by quiet drama by Natalia Baxter, Gina Montalto and Fola Walker, it is a meditative work that struck as an excerpt from a larger piece. The trio in circled around each other, interlocking at various points in sculptural movement and expressing individual yearning.

Concluding the first part of the concert was Lee’s ‘A Christmas Wish’ set to ‘Someday at Christmas’ by Stevie Wonder, for four dancers.  There was attack here by the quarter in Lee’s quick tempo choreography; the dancers struggled with both pacing and cohesive technique.  Meanwhile, Lee took the floor executing fouettes turns and pumping out some airy grand pirouettes.

Percussionist Karen Smith wowed the audience with a Djembe African drum rendition of ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ to open part two of the concert. The sonic rhythms engulfing the theater and entrancing the crowd.  Lee and Newsome followed up with “SLAYBells” danced to Alex Boye’s African tribal rendition called “Little Drummerboy.” This was Lee’s most potent and inventive choreography in the Afro-jazz fusion style. This piece has depth, precision and Lee and Newsome give it hypnotic theatricality.

Staci Turner, artistic director of Grace & Style Dance Studio, choreographed “Hallelujah!” a rousing Praise chorale for students at her school. Her daughter Donielle Turner, lead in the ensemble dance of standard modern ensemble combinations, with eight dancers at different skill level, but all dancing their hearts out and among the standouts the youngest dancer  10- year- old Saniya Bell.

Lee always likes to include live music in his concerts and he had two powerhouse vocalists for the Christmas show. Peter Andrew Danzig sang a fine a Capella version of ‘The Christmas Song’ (made iconic by Nat King Cole in the 50s) and followed up with a saucy rendition of Santa Baby. Later, Tatalia Murchenson was in mighty voice for a soulful spiritual before the finale by Lee’s “The Joy of Jesus” which had the crowd swaying in their seats.

After the performance during a Q&A session, several of the performers talked about working with Lee in the studio and wanting to be part of RLDC’s s first ever holiday concert, which Lee said, was a show he has always wanted to do.  Lee’s connection to dancers on every level is inspiring. Even with some performances not as polished as they should be, it was easy to cheer on the exuberance and dance spirit of the holiday troupes.

About Lewis J. Whittington

Lewis Whittington is an arts journalist based in Philadelphia. He started writing professionally in the early 90s as a media consultant for an AIDS organizations and then as a theater and dance reviewer for the Philadelphia Gay News. Mr. Whittington has covered dance, theater, opera and classical music for the Philadelphia Inquirer and City Paper.

Mr. Whittington’s arts profiles, features, and stories have appeared in The Advocate, Dance International, Playbill, American Theatre, American Record Guide, The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, EdgeMedia, and Philadelphia Dance Journal. Mr. Whittington has received two NEA awards for journalistic excellence.

In addition to interviews with choreographers, dancers, and artistic directors from every discipline, he has interviewed such music luminaries from Ned Rorem to Eartha Kitt. He has written extensively on gay culture and politics and is most proud of his interviews with such gay rights pioneers as Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings.

Mr. Whittington has participated on the poetry series Voice in Philadelphia and has written two (unpublished) books of poetry. He is currently finishing Beloved Infidels, a play about the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh. His editorials on GLBTQ activism, marriage equality, gay culture and social issues have appeared in Philadelphia Inquirer, City Paper, and The Advocate.

View All Posts