Journey of the Magi

A Christmas entertainment based on the poem by T. S. Eliot, performed by the Springs Dance Company in St Mary’s Church, Kirtlington, on Friday 29th November 2019

Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’ has always struck me as a somewhat sombre poem, with none of the expected rejoicing at finding the right place at the end of their journey and bearing witness to a miraculous birth, but the quiet conclusion that ‘it was (you may say) satisfactory’. And then the birth itself could not be simply celebrated, containing as it did knowledge of the cruel death to follow. How could such a work be transformed into an engaging, witty, hugely inventive, and energetic dance? The work was first devised in 1997 and has been through various adaptations since as it is performed in churches around the country in the run-up to Christmas. The primary leap of the creators’ imagination was to see it as possible to weave Eliot’s poem in and out of more familiar modern experiences of the festive season: starting with an evocation of the magic of snow, then shopping, partying, an interlude of pure pantomime at the beginning of the second half, decorations and present-giving on Christmas morning. Each small element of the whole was accompanied by appropriate and wonderfully varied music, from Chopin to Gershwin and Cole Porter, Saint-Saens, John Williams and the glorious twelfth-century Hildegard Von Bingen, interspersed with pure pop. It was all performed with gusto by the cast of four dancers, who changed outfits and character deftly through their facial expressions and body language. One of my own favourite moments was when the three women dancers appeared ‘riding’ hobby-horse camels, with their faces capturing the haughty expressions we associate with these creatures. It was all lively, infectiously entertaining, accessible to both children and those who knew nothing of Eliot, although the poem was helpfully printed in the programme. For me, the great achievement of the whole was that, for all its light-hearted fun, it never lost sight of the underlying mood of Eliot’s poem. There were two moments in particular that drew a gasp from the audience as they were so unexpected: the Christmas presents unwrapped and distributed looked both ordinary and not particularly welcome to their recipients: a doll for the central couple’s daughter, a hockey stick, a comic soft toy sheep. Then suddenly they appeared arranged as a tableau of the nativity scene, with the doll in a cradle, the stick now a shepherd’s crook and the sheep beside the manger. The other moment came at the end when a fine piece of dancing ended with the dancer emulating a figure on a cross, arms outstretched, head bowed. But, while this essential thread of the Christian story was woven through the whole piece, it was presented with the lightest touch. The essential message of the work seemed to me to be that life should be celebrated and enjoyed to the full, especially in the company of others, in multiple ways, including art, music and dance, but awareness of darker aspects of the human experience, deprivation, pain and suffering, should never be forgotten but serve to enhance all that is most valuable in human interaction. That said, what characterised the whole was its sense of fun and we all left with smiles on our faces and feet that twitched to join the dance.

 

Celia Hawkesworth