The Setup: On December 15 and 16, Earthen Vessels, The Sandra Organ Dance Company presented its holiday production Amahl and the Night Visitors at Houston Ballet Center for Dance's Margaret Alkek Williams Dance Lab. Adapted from the 1951 NBC telecast, Amahl combined opera, ballet and American Sign Language for a unique Christmas entertainment experience.
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The Execution: Amahl and the Night Visitors is a Christmas fable about a young boy who has a penchant for fabricating tall tales. He is full of wild energy and playful antics to the point that he exasperates his stern, but loving mother. Amahl is like all other boys, except that he is physically handicapped and must rely on a crutch to move around. His disability doesn't dampen his spirits, as personified by Lauren Perrone Bay who fills her performance with delightful charm and innocent mischief.
Artistic Director Sandra Organ Solis has made it her mission to diversify the audience of contemporary and classical dance through her company. A production that makes significant use of American Sign Language is the perfect vehicle for such an endeavor. One might expect that the combination of signs and classical movement to create a jarring juxtaposition, but surprisingly the marriage works beautifully. The gestures of the hands are perfectly integrated with the choreography, and enriches it in a way that is not only lovely to see, but moving in the knowledge that they are providing actual meaning to another set of audience members.
The production draws much of its emotional punch from its brevity. After we are introduced to Amahl and his mother (danced beautifully by Amariss Sharratt), the visitors of the title arrive. They are three kings on a journey to offer gifts to a newborn king, one who will bring about a new world order of peace and justice. They find hospitality in Amahl's humble home and are treated to a feast by the local villagers. The ending scene pulls at the heart in a genuine swell of sympathy for Amahl and his mother, but to not give much a way, let's just say a miracle happens and a little boy gets his wish.
The Verdict: Amahl and the Night Visitors may be a children's production, but its giving-is-better-than-receiving lesson never becomes a didactic morality tale. The story's heartwarming nature avoids the saccharine and syrupy and remains joyous and celebratory. As far as holiday entertainment goes, Amahl hits the spot. The ballet a testament to the power of children, and in a world where the crazed so easily dispose of the innocent, it reminds us that they are gifts to be cherished.