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Boston Liturgical Dance Ensemble's 'A Dancer's Christmas'

Sara Knight and Jamie Huggis in a scene from 'A Dancer's Christmas.'
Sara Knight and Jamie Huggis in a scene from "A Dancer's Christmas." (Globe Staff Photo / Dina Rudick)

The Rev. Robert VerEecke, artistic director of the Boston Liturgical Dance Ensemble, was reading a recent review of the Rockettes extravaganza at the Wang Theatre when he recalled his own experience seeing the show as an impressionable 7 year old.

"I was so mesmerized by the whole thing," he remembers. "But even then, as I looked at the [Radio City Music Hall version of the] Nativity, it looked just like a parade. I had the sense that there must be more in Mary and Joseph than just having them walk piously across the stage and hold iconic positions."

Eventually, VerEecke choreographed a simple telling of the Nativity story, set to Vaughn Williams's luminous "The Lark Ascending," for a small performance in the chapel at Boston College. That was 25 years ago, and from that work sprang "A Dancer's Christmas," which looks at Christmas from three historical eras, combining reverence with jovial good humor. The first act Nativity is followed by a boisterous celebration of Christmas in medieval times, with a colorful cast of townspeople, a traveling band of entertainers, and lots of children converging on a central square. The third act captures contemporary life with a suite of dances set to familiar carols.

When "A Dancer's Christmas" first began, the cast was primarily students and alumni of Boston College. But gradually the piece began attracting more and more professional dancers looking for meaningful opportunities to perform, and now the core company is complemented with guest artists as well as community members.

"Over the years, that gave me more breadth and possibility choreographically," VerEecke says.

Each year, VerEecke tweaks and refines the piece to take advantage of the dancers he's working with, and to reflect his own evolving spirituality. "I've used a primary structure of the three acts, but within that framework, the pieces have changed dramatically. It's a kind of ongoing dialogue I have with material from my own faith experience. I feel like my relationship with God is projected onstage."

This season, VerEcke revamped the opening act, called "InDwelling." "I'm trying to get a sense of the spirit of God moving in each of these characters, particularly Mary," he says. "So the piece is less narrative and more internal. It's a very different perspective, a different feel, different energy."

A polished production with a palpable sense of joy, "A Dancer's Christmas" mixes ballet, modern dance, and folk dance for participants without extensive training. It feeds off the sense of community created by dancers joined in spiritual expression, from amateurs to professionals, children to seniors. Over the years, whole families have been involved, and some dancers have grown-up doing the production year after year, reinforcing that sense of communal continuity.

"There are really no egos in this performance," VerEecke believes. "People are willing to give to each other, to work with each other. There's an amazing kind of interplay and sharing and good will, which is what Christmas is supposed to be about . . . . There's a lot of glitz and display and really surface stuff during the holiday season. This show is what the story of Christmas is about from the inside."

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