Liz Hanley, Leni Sloan and John Roberts.
By Daniel Neely
Christmas time is always an exciting part of the New York’s Irish calendar. Among the delightful and moving events the City has to offer is the Irish Arts Center’s annual holiday show. This year, “Winter Solstice Celebration” with Mick Moloney, Athena Tergis, and friends, will take place Dec. 16 & 17 at Peter Norton Symphony Space (2537 Broadway at 95th Street) and it looks like it will be amazing show. Between the theme, the performers, and the scale on which it’s being staged, I wonder if this year’s installment won’t be the best yet.
I spoke with Mick Moloney who described this year’s production as a celebration of seasonal rebirth. “It’s a theme we’re really exploring more fully than ever before,” he explained in a brief conversation. “We’ll take ideas like death, ritual, and resurrection and explore not only the ways they are part of the season and our own cultural traditions, but how they resonate with other traditions as well.”
Although the show will be grounded in Irish seasonal traditions, its timing allows Moloney and Tergis to take a much broader view, so once again they’ve assembled a stellar crew who are up for the task. The lineup begins with Green Fields of America stalwarts Brendan Dolan (piano), Liz Hanley (fiddle and vocals), Niall O’Leary (dance), and recent National Heritage Fellow Billy McComiskey (accordion). They’ll be joined by Irish dancer Laura Neese, who performs with Darrah Carr Dance Company & co-directs KitchenSink Collective.
They’ll also host singer Tamar Korn, who will once again bring a bit of jazz to the table and also sing seasonal songs that reflect her Jewish heritage. Clarinet and strings player Dennis Lichtman will also perform. Lichtman is a top jazz musician and the host the extraordinary old-time hot jazz jam session that happens every Tuesday night at Mona’s bar in the East Village. He’s a brilliant addition and will add immeasurably to the evening’s festivities.
Guitarist and singer John Roberts will also figure prominently into the show. Born and raised in Worcestershire, England and now living in Schenectady, Roberts is a brilliant performer with impeccable Christmastime bona fides. In addition to being part of a few of Moloney’s previous productions, he was a member (with Tony Barrand) of Nowell Sing We Clear, a singing group that tells the stories of the events, characters, and ancient customs associated with the Christmas story. With deep knowledge of the traditions in England, Ireland, and Wales, Roberts will weave an engaging pan-Celtic element into the evening.
Moloney was quick to note that in ritual “people expect some stability, but you always have to balance with some novelty as well.” This novelty will come from the old folk drama and mummers traditions. Readers who attended the Irish Arts Center’s holiday shows years back may have fond memories of the exuberant mumming plays that were staged during the intermissions and featured actors in straw and wicker masks. After too long a break, mumming and folk drama will not only be reintroduced to the show, but they will have a much expanded role and I suspect will prove one of its most important features.
The man behind the straw and wicker is Macdara Vallely. An award winning filmmaker and documentarian (his 2012 film “Babygirl” was a Tribeca Film Festival Official Selection), Vallely grew up in Armagh and learned about folk drama and the mumming tradition from his father Dara Vallely. In addition to being a painter (his most recent work involved doing the art for “Laoch na Laochra,” a book he worked on with writer Réamonn Ó Ciaráin telling, in Irish, the full story of Cúchulainn; an English version is set to be published through Gael Linn in 2017), Dara founded the Armagh Rhymers. Organized in the 1970s during the Troubles with partners Peter Shortall and Brendan Bailey, Vallely believed that folk drama could be used to create mutual understanding among children and pull Catholic and Protestant communities together.
It was a smart idea and the Rhymers found uncommon success at the time both at home and abroad; they are now considered “one of Europe’s most celebrated folk theatre ensembles.” Macdara grew up with the Rhymers as both an observer and participant, and he brings his lived experience in that tradition to this year’s show.
Part of the narrative he’s constructed involves folk drama’s merge with the African tradition jonkonnu. Like the mumming and wren boy traditions, jonkonnu is a street festival found throughout the African diaspora – especially in the Caribbean – that includes masquerading, drama, and music. Although it was originally associated with the end of the sugarcane planting seasons in late December and at the harvest around the beginning of August, and was intended to afford slaves a limited degree of free expression, today, it a cherished Christmastime tradition.
For this, Vallely will collaborate with the important choreographer and cultural historian Leni Sloan. Sloan, who is one of Moloney’s frequent collaborators, is an expert on new world African expressive forms like jonkonnu and possesses a creative instinct and breadth of knowledge that will realize Vallely’s narrative vision and weave this African festive element into the show in the most effective of ways. The parallels between these two forms will certainly surprise and their realization on stage promises to be a stunning moment in this year’s show.
Moloney never seems to tire of the work. “I love doing these concerts,” he said, beaming. The care he and Tergis puts into their productions year in and year out really seem to demonstrate this. However, between the players and the story they plan to tell, there’s an excitement brewing that suggests something special in the offing this time around. I think you’ll want to be there to see it – it looks to be another excellent show! For more information and ticketing, visit irishartscenter.org.