Topping your tree

Dayton Contemporary Dance Company’s “The Littlest Angel”

By Arnecia Patterson

Photo: DCDC performs “The Littlest Angel” Friday and Saturday, Dec. 5 and 6 at the University of Dayton; photo: Andy Snow

The American holiday season’s tradition of storytelling is revisited, annually, on television and in books, film and music. Yet dance is the medium that lends depth to those lasting tales. When movement is added to the most essential elements of different media, the resulting spectacle provides the viewer with inventive choices. This holiday season, Dayton Contemporary Dance Company premieres a dance that blends seasonal themes in a full evening-length contemporary ballet, “The Littlest Angel.” It features choreography by DCDC associate artistic director, Crystal Michelle, set to a spoken narrative of Charles Tazewell’s short story of the same name and the recordings of Grammy award-winning vocalist and conductor, Bobby McFerrin. Set design is by D. Tristan Cupp, who is a puppet and mask designer and artistic director and co-founder of Zoot Theatre. The performances will be presented at the University of Dayton Boll Theatre in Kennedy Union, Friday and Saturday, Dec. 5-6 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, Dec. 6 at 3 p.m. While the story on stage promises to be captivating in its own right, there is a parallel story about how the choreographer, Crystal, found her own layered, personal, artistic voice and used it to choreograph the visual layers of music and text in DCDC’s newest dance addition to this season’s cultural festivities.

As choreographer of “The Littlest Angel,” Crystal Michelle used every face of her multi-faceted career at DCDC. A native of Augusta, Georgia, Crystal studied ballet in Georgia and New York before she joined the company in 2002. Since then she has performed, taught and choreographed for the company; however, each position had a singular focus until now. Her current position has moved her formerly compartmentalized tasks from the creative fringes into the artistic focus that manifested “The Littlest Angel.” According to Crystal, “I can approach making dances with a kind of vision and purpose that was always lurking around the edges in my early days with the company. I have the freedom to purpose artistic vision rather than solely respond to someone else’s.”

Such large-scale creativity is needed for a full evening-length ballet with all of its moving parts. Crystal spent three years at The Ohio State University, where she earned her MFA in choreography, learning how to entwine disparate pieces into stage-worthy choreography representative of her creative desires. “I spent every bit of [that time] giving myself permission to have a unique voice and develop a vocabulary,” she said. “It steers the choreographic process into a less predictable and more investigative structure.”

A storehouse of imaginative curiosity served Crystal as she molded Charles Tazewell’s prose to Bobby McFerrin’s blend of African-inspired vocals and classical music structures. In fact, Crystal was inspired by the similarities between hers and McFerrin’s genre-bending. For “The Littlest Angel,” she used a compilation of his recordings; however, she cited her favorites as the gatekeeper’s duet, choreographed to “Circle Song 2,” a rhythmic, percussive chant, and the lyrical chorale of “Brief Eternities” that accompanies the opening dance sequence. “I love that his work is equally influenced by both classical and African roots,” Crystal said. “I was classically trained until I joined DCDC as a dancer. It wasn’t until then that I began to layer traditional African aesthetics into my work. It gives me lots of depth and texture to experiment with.”

As her experimentation grew from probing different forms, Crystal uncovered ways to enchant audiences with a contemporary ballet based on Tazewell’s holiday story. Initially, in 1939 the story was written as a radio script and then later published as the children’s book that is popular today. Its initial form may account for the prose’s vivid descriptions and orality. Clearly intended to be spoken, it is narrated with blended movement styles that may act as counterpoint to the old-world, gesture-embellished choreography the language seems to implore. Crystal, who did not want to undermine the identity of contemporary dance, veered away from the short variations and pantomime found in classical story ballets. Her challenge to maintain a distinctly contemporary artistic integrity led to the decision to include the narration in the ballet.

“Tazewell’s language is lush and detailed, and I wanted to find a way to physically include it and also to hear it,” Crystal said. “We decided that the text from the work, layered with contemporary movement, would give the piece the kind of aesthetic life we were looking for.”

Aesthetic life is a gift to the Dayton community and people who seek a new, concert dance treat during the holiday arts and culture season. As an age-old story, “The Littlest Angel” is based on universal themes of gifts, humility and transformation. DCDC melds those themes with its own brand of contemporary dance to transform the story, as well as audiences who witness its premier. Crystal sees its performance as art with influences the audience can take away. “At its best, the ballet begs the audience, as does Tazewell, to give and love purely,” Crystal said. “I can’t think of anything else to leave the audience with during the holiday season.”

Dayton Contemporary Dance Company will present “The Littlest Angel” on Friday and Saturday, Dec. 5-6 at 7:30 p.m. and on Saturday, Dec. 6 at 3 p.m. at the University of Dayton Boll Theatre in the Kennedy Union, 300 College Park Ave. For more tickets and information, please call 937.228.3630 or 888.228.3630, or visit

Reach DCP freelance writer Arnecia Patterson at

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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

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