Eleone Dance Theatre is still caroling in color after 22 years

By Roger Lee for The Dance Journal

Eleone Dance Theatre brings the soul to Philadelphia’s holiday dance offerings. The company’s Carols in Color uses dance, music, and theater to tell St. Matthew’s version of the Gospel. The Dance Journal caught up with Eleone’s co-directors Shawn-Lamere Williams and Dr. Sheila A. Ward to discuss the upcoming 22nd anniversary of Carols in Color.

The soulful holiday production premiered in December 1992. The late E. Leon Evans, II conceived, choreographed, vocally and musically arranged, directed, and produced Carols in Color. According to Dr. Ward, “Carols in Color is a holiday dance musical that retells the Gospel according to St. Matthew by using contemporary music, exuberant dance, and powerful narration.” She explained that Leon was well respected in Philadelphia for his many talents. He was much more than a dancer, but an all around artist. Leon was a dancer, choreographer, director, producer, and vocal arranger and coach. His talents all came together for the making of Carols in Color.

“The production provided Leon the platform to feature not only premiere Philadelphia vocalists and singing groups, whom he worked with professionally, but also the ‘soul-stirring’ movements of Eleone Dance Theatre,” said Dr. Ward. Eleone Dance Theatre made its company debut in 1995. She added, “Audiences can always expect to be deeply moved by this spirit-filled portrayal of the Gospel according to St. Matthew and performers singing and dancing through the audience.” They can count on more than a dance concert. Carols in Color provides a dance experience for all in attendance.

Since 1998, Carols in Color has been under the co-direction of Williams and Dr. Ward. As the Artistic Director, Williams has adapted and restaged, choreographed, and sanctioned choreography and musical additions that keep the show relevant, engaging, and electrifying. He was responsible for bringing dancers from Eleone’s second company and training school into the show. Dr. Ward ensures that the show is professionally and fiscally sound so that the artistic vision is realized.  She is also the only dancer who has performed in all 22 consecutive seasons of Carols in Color.

So what is the secret to the show’s successful 22-season run?

“We have always said that this show is blessed.  Even through the most challenging times, “Carols” has always been enjoyed by audiences and we’ve been able to pay our bills. Through Grace “Carols” continues today,” admitted Dr. Ward. She added that it is the spirit of carrying out E. Leon Evans, II’s intended vision that keeps the show going strong. “Not until that first performance did the cast fully realize Leon’s vision. The show opened and closed to thunderous applauses.  Cast members hugged, smiled, cried, and said to each other, “Now we know what Leon was trying to do,”” said Dr. Ward. E. Leon Evans, II’s legacy lights a fire under the cast each and every season. That fire pushes everyone to grow as artists and citizens. That same fire brings out the absolute best in everyone.  “Five years from now, we envision performing more shows and a longer run in Philadelphia and more frequent regional engagements,” admitted Williams.

Williams and Dr. Ward work hard to keep the fire burning each and every season. According to Williams, “We work year-long reviewing all aspects of the previous year’s production run. This guides decisions all of our administrative, artistic, and production decisions for the upcoming season. Once we start to meet with the cast, we get in the spirit of the season by remembering the words of Leon Evans, “There are no leads in Carols except for Baby Jesus.” Each performance is prefixed by a group circle prayer.  The spirit-filled performance that the audiences experience is ‘real’.”

The close attention to detail, willingness to make changes, and honest evaluation have all attributed to the long-term success of Carols in Color. It is a major accomplishment for a biblical-based holiday dance musical production to thrive for 22 seasons and counting. The show’s success is nothing short of inspiring for all who have the privilege of witnessing it.

Eleone Dance Theatre’s Carols in Color
Saturday, December 21, 2013, 3:00 pm and 7:00 pm
Sunday, December 22, 2013, 3:00 pm and 7:00 pm
Kurtz Center for Performing Arts at William Penn Charter School,3000 West School House Lane, Philadelphia, PA 19144
$30 for general admission; $27 for students, seniors, and children