Dayton Contemporary Dance Company’s The Littlest Angel

Countess V. Winfrey and Matthew J. Talley in DCDC’s production of The Littlest Angel.  Photo: Scott Robbins

By Arnecia Patterson

As children’s stories go, The Littlest Angel’s florid language can be read aloud as an undulating lullaby. Charles Tazewell, who wrote the story in 1946, crafts long, winding sentences of multi-syllabic words to describe life in heaven for a cherubic new entrant. References to a gatekeeper and to an older more sophisticated angel as “understanding” adds complexity to the tale geared toward young children.

In Dayton Contemporary Dance Company’s (DCDC) version of the story, choreographed by associate artistic director Crystal Michelle, dance works like magic to build a more relatable story. Set to music by Bobby McFerrin, the evening-length ballet is about an angel who is earning her wings amidst the challenges of a new environment. Along the way she makes discoveries, doubts herself, and is finally affirmed. With a mix of Christmas symbolism and dance’s ability to abstract written language into visual feeling, DCDC will present The Littlest Angel at the University of Dayton’s Kennedy Union Boll Theatre on Friday, Dec. 1 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, Dec. 2 at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

Among the ensemble cast, dancer Countess Winfrey will return in the role as The Littlest Angel—a role she wants to transcend the choreography and strike an emotional chord from the stage. Since much of dance is bodies making grand gestures with big technique, along with emotion, it takes design collaborators, like Matthew J. Evans, the lighting director and production manager for The Littlest Angel, to tell the full story.

 …the evening-length ballet is about an angel who is earning her wings amidst the challenges of a new environment.

Over five seasons with DCDC, Countess Winfrey has learned what it means to become acclimated to a new situation. After two busy years performing locally, teaching, and taking classes with DCDC 2, she finally earned admittance to the professional company in 2014. Being cast in the lead role of The Littlest Angel is similar to the affirmation her character receives at the end of the story. “In contemporary dance, it is seldom that you get a role where you’re the center of attention for most of the show,” says Winfrey. “It allows me to revisit the changes you go through when you have to meet challenges.”

Winfrey’s understanding of the role, through her own experiences, helps her blend her dance artistry with the story’s humanity. “Sometimes the challenge as a dancer can be that we get used to doing things in a dance-y way and forget that some things are just human,” she reflects. Winfrey refers to how adults temper their reactions to obstacles. “We know how to hide being scared or frustrated while children do not know how to deal in any other way except to feel the emotion,” explains Winfrey. She wants The Littlest Angel to be more human than dancer, so she studies emotions in preparation for the role. “I watch people, the children I teach, and I remember. It’s a recounting of what people feel and bringing it to the stage.”

As Countess Winfrey talks about the backdrop lit with stars in one of her favorite sections, “Elysian Fields,” and The Littlest Angel’s dance among the clouds in her new wings, she hints at the setting—heaven. An atmospheric transformation of the stage into a believable version of heaven rests with The Littlest Angel’s lighting director and production manager, Matthew J. Evans.

As the University of Dayton Kennedy Union Boll Theatre’s manager, Evans began building a relationship with DCDC’s artistic personnel whenever the company performed there. What started as small requests for lighting individual dances have grown into full-fledged light design to complement dance with another storytelling element. To light choreography, he uses angles to model the shape of the body. “Instead of traditional lighting where you would look up and see the lighting coming in straight on, dance lighting comes in from the upper angles or high sides,” says Evans.

Focus and movement direct where the viewer looks. And everything points to heaven—not just his idea, but others’. According to Evans, haze, color, and texture help to create what many think of as heaven. “White seems to be the most predominant color for heaven, so I use a lot of white, stark light,” he says.

Evans has his own story of discovery. His attention to the details of telling stories through dance comes by way of an early enthusiasm for the theatre and design. Early as grade school after a role in a sixth grade production, “A Computerized Christmas,” ensuing years of fascination with acting and lighting led to an acting scholarship to undergraduate school. In 2011, he joined UD’s faculty and began lighting dance. Right now, Evans is receiving his own affirmation. He will travel to Russia with DCDC in May 2018 to light performances and give workshops in lighting, stage management, and sound design.

The Littlest Angel, as written, is complex in its language and themes; however, as danced, the story becomes an emotional study on the holiday themes of triumphing over what is doled out by the world we traverse and being gifted with affirmation for the challenges we overcome.

DCDC presents The Littlest Angel on Friday, Dec. 1 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, Dec. 2 at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at the University of Dayton’s Boll Theatre. Tickets can be purchased at TicketCenterStage.com or by calling the box office at 937.228.3630. For a sneak peek of the holiday family show, use #LittlestAngel on Facebook/Instagram: @DaytonContemporaryDanceCompany and Twitter: @DCDCLive.

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Arnecia Patterson
Arnecia Patterson has an infinite capacity to view concert dance. She found her former career as dance executive, funder, and consultant extremely satisfying—and finds writing about dance equally rewarding. Reach DCP Resident Dance Critic Arnecia Patterson at ArneciaPatterson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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