PERUN THE THUNDER GOD: This version of
St. George actually slays the dragon.
Santa may know who’s naughty and nice, but he’ll have to bone up on his irregular folk meters if he wants to follow this year’s Christmas Revels (at Sanders Theatre through December 30) to the Balkans, where 4/4 is an endangered species as two local performing groups, Libana and Mladost Folk Dance Ensemble, sing and dance up the kind of storm that in a smarter world would bring peace to that conflict-torn corner of the world. Host and songleader David Coffin starts it off with “As you can tell from the clothes we’re wearing, we’re not only going through Harvard Square, we’re going to Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia . . . ,” but there’s relatively little shtick in this 37th annual winter-solstice celebration from Revels — perhaps because the recent history of the Balkan lands isn’t anything to laugh about. There are plenty of smiles on stage, however, and toe-tapping feet, as songs about sweethearts and grain and grapes and olives and sweethearts and drinking and village life and still more sweethearts fly past in harmonies tight enough to pass through the eye of a needle and the dancing kicks into 7/16 and 11/16 handkerchief-waving heaven. It’s enough to make the verities of human existence seem older than warfare.
The opening stage set is simple, even elemental, a trio of thresholds, each with a family gathered within and the traditional decorations of hazelnut branches and wheat. There’s a stone wall with a hearth to the rear, and at the sides what look like plane trees with a dusting of snow. The women’s costumes in particular, mostly shirts and babushkas and embroidered skirts and vests, are a giddy whirl of colors: white, red, black, green, gold, some brown and yellow — apart from the identical brown-and-red aprons worn by the six women of Libana, no two women have the same outfit.
In dim light, the Cambridge Symphonic Brass Ensemble strikes up Tom Pixton’s newly composed overture, with Balkanized glints of the “The Lord of the Dance” and the Sussex Mummers’ Carol. We start, a little oddly, with three English carols (“Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” and “In the Bleak Midwinter”) — perhaps to get the audience engaged. Soon, however, the Koledari Women (koledari are villagers who go from house to house dispensing seasonal blessings) break into a trio of Balkan carols. We hear singing from the Sanders Theatre balcony, the lights dim again, and the survakari appear, cousins to the ugly Wüeschte mummers of last year’s Swiss/German Christmas Revels, fuzzy animal-masked shamans who move, to the clang of cowbells (I kept thinking the CSBE was going to break into Mahler’s Sixth Symphony) among the audience tapping shoulders with branches of cornel to disperse evil spirits. The audience sings a Croatian song (in English), and a line dance, “Niska banja,” breaks out as if direct from Zorba the Serbian. Some of the Revels children act out the Bulgarian tale of Milka the Beautiful, who’s torn between two suitors before a merchant from a far-off land arrives with a red rose and a golden chain and carries her away. Debra Wise (from Underground Railway Theater) narrates the Slovenian story of “Strawberries in Winter,” in which a wicked stepmother sends her two children into the winter woods to fetch the impossible (violets, strawberries, apples), but because the children are respectful before the seasonal spirits of the forest, everything is given to them. (When Stepmom herself goes out after oranges, however, she come to a predictable bad end.)
Wise also recites two poems, Ilan Shamir’s “Advice from a Tree” (which includes the line “Drink plenty of water”) and Revels stage director Patrick Swanson’s “The Tree of Life,” and indeed the tree, with and without its Christian associations, is the centerpiece of this Christmas Revels, a metaphor for the organic life of humankind. In the half-light accorded the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance — which with its Fool and Hobby Horse and Boy Archer and umbrella-bearing Man-Woman seems spookier and more appropriate than ever in a Balkan context — the snow-covered branches hint at Susan Cooper’s Silver on the Tree. (Cooper wrote “The Shortest Day” for Revels in 1977, and that poem has been recited at every Christmas Revels since.) And the Tree of Life (a slinky Rowan Swanson) anchors Revels’ Balkan mummers’ play, where Perun the Thunder God (Woody Nussdorfer, in a silver outfit that would make Flash Gordon blush) dukes it out with Veles the Dragon (Debra Wise) and actually triumphs — in this version of St. George and the Dragon, it’s the dragon who dies and has to be revived so the cycle of seasons can continue. You could think of Revels as Boston’s Tree of Life: it’s put down deep roots, it drinks plenty of water, and it continues to grow.