Ballet Creole opens the holidays by intersecting the Toronto theatre community and the NextSteps contemporary dance series with its annual seasonal ritual — Soulful Messiah. The performance is Artistic Director and Founder Patrick Parson’s choreographic concept of navigating different emotional stages of life and spirituality and how one copes through its peaks and valleys. “There’s something there for everyone,” he says, “but they must come to see and experience it!”
The production is advertised to a diverse black-Canadian demographic that would not normally attend Canadian theatre spaces, but it is accessible to a universal audience of all ages. It’s also a case study in cooperative economics in support of vendors of colour: multiple exchanges between patrons, families, local self-employed business owners, board members and multi-ethnic musicians happen in a Christmas market held in Fleck Dance Theatre. Audience members were able to purchase Christmas gifts prior to showtime and during intermission. I found myself thinking the event has much to offer the black diasporic community. Ballet Creole’s Soulful Messiah is not only a signature holiday production but also an equitable platform for local black vendors to sell cultural products in a theatrical space they would not access for marketing purposes otherwise.
The work itself is now fifteen years old — a contemporary ballet that infuses the diverse phrasing of hip hop, African, Caribbean, jazz and modern movement to thirteen riveting songs from Quincey Jones’s Handel’s Messiah. Patrons enjoy a physically demanding movement vocabulary to various urban and layered tempos. The audience is drawn in to experience how one unpacks external realities and the acts — “a dark side,” “finding oneself” and “rejoicing” — reflect a spiritual journey through dance and music. The precision of Alistair Graphine’s solo included an elegant fluidity that rhythmically canvassed through introspective movements, in search of an expected deliverer. Powerful mood and music shifts to scenes of the ensemble cast, converging into an embodied mastery of passionate choreography with lifts rising in revolutionary motion. The movement journey of the interpreted highs and lows captured all spaces and corners of the Fleck stage.
An hour before the opening night, I interviewed Parson with two of Ballet Creole’s principal dancers, Gabriella Parson and Yuhala Muy Garcia. Their reflections spoke volumes about the importance and sustainability of the production, in which a diverse, trained cast of colour have evolved the movement variations over its fifteen-year run. Originally, the work was set on fifteen dancers but was later scaled down to nine, and a few of the dancers changed over the years. Simultaneously, David Cox’s tap dancing is a constant interwoven thread throughout the scenes. One year, the ballet included a live choir. In other years, new dancers have joined the stage. Gabriella Parson shared how this passionate production signifies the beginning of the holiday, family and bringing the community together. She talked about this ballet as an opportunity for the audience to shed the energies of the year and engage through a journey of transformation. From a past reflection, I learned that Soulful’s deepest dance execution evoked tears among a few dancers and members of the audience.
Garcia performed this ballet for thirteen years, and during the talkback with the audience, she reflected on her different emotional states each year. It is this very magic that Parson hopes touches the soul of the community. He shared that, as a Creole person, seeing his ballet celebrated creates emotional moments for him. The talkback was also an opportunity for the audience to offer feedback, and one member praised the cast for seamless transitions at different heights, levels and speeds. This year, the talented lighting design of Brad Trenaman was noted by an audience member who said it was a “character on its own.” This collaborative element supported the cast who conveyed Parson’s poetry in movement.
In the larger theatre community, Soulful Messiah makes its mark in Toronto and exposes patrons to a different seasonal tradition next to The National Ballet of Canada’s The Nutcracker. Parson reflected on a changing audience and delved into the discourse of which community the yearly presentation impacts. He continues to search for what Soulful means to a pluralistic audience by questioning whether attendees from the African or Caribbean diaspora understand the momentousness of attending the theatre each year to celebrate something that is conceptualized and produced by a member of their ethnic heritage. Although his company started at a time when he did not see himself represented on stages in the early 1990s, he emphasized that his ballet is not representative of one genre of dance or one ethnic culture.
Walking into Fleck Dance Theatre, I witnessed a seasonal ritual that connected smiles, conversation, fundraising efforts and reunions among colleagues of the artistic community. Yet it was more than that. I danced and swayed in my seat beside another dance colleague and rejoiced in the invited call and response of polyrhythmic sounds and staging. Parson is telling his story of the miracle of life and the seeking of a new awakening. We, the community, are asked to be present, pay attention and invest in the journey. Soulful Messiah is significant to potentially translate a physical, emotional and psychological connection that brings family and a multi-faceted community together. In its twenty-seventh year, Ballet Creole continues to offer this holiday tradition as a full and lifted experience that unifies us all.