Shauna Farnell

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December 20, 2004
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James Sewell and Co. deliver off-beat adaptation of unsung Christmas classic

BEAVER CREEK - Maybe it was just the ambiance of children's holiday colorings on the walls, trees full of velvet and tiny Christmas lights, or the awareness that there were probably a few Hollywood bigwigs in attendance, but Sunday night's Vilar Center performance of "Amahl and the Night Visitors" left me feeling as if the world is a place full of vastly differing talents. Or just a place full of talent in general.Italian librettist and composer Gian Carlo Menotti first wrote the story of Amahl as a made-for-TV opera in 1951. Although the story didn't seem glaringly Christian, it is the tale of a crippled shepherd and his poverty-stricken mother who are visited by three kings on their way to pay homage to baby Jesus. Amahl (performed by Penelope Freeh, clad in shepherd's rags and foot bandages cleverly wrapped over her point ballet shoes) becomes quick friends with them as they request a night's stay in his home. After neighboring shepherds bring offerings for the kings and the household falls asleep, Amahl's mother (Peggy Seipp) attempts to steal a small piece of gold intended as a gift for Jesus, and the kings' page (Sewell) catches her in the act.Of the many things that impressed me about the performance, conducted by James Sewell Ballet company out of Minneapolis, Minn., was how the dancers managed to leap and twirl without their hats falling off. If that didn't demonstrate a steadiness of foot - and general balance - I don't know what does.

The kings (Matthew Keefe, Justin Leaf and Benjamin Johnson) were adorned in what looked to be heavy velvet robes and headwear. This didn't stop them from spinning nimbly or lifting each other in crisply choreographed dance maneuvers while simultaneously gesticulating the narration in American Sign Language.The performance was conducted to a tape of the original opera, and Sewell's idea to incorporate sign language on top of the entire performance was a beautiful and meaningful touch, and not one that came without a plenitude of effort on his part and on the part of the company's dancers. Sewell said he began (before his company's premiere of the performance nine years ago), with an American Sign Language dictionary. However, he quickly discovered the translation of "Amahl" involved a rather thorough introduction and education of the language, which like Chinese, German or any other, has its very own syntax and general character.The performers' ability to coordinate these gestures and their dances with the operatic narration was impeccable. Although they never spoke, their facial expressions and motions fell in sync with the story as well as those of any refined actor. After Amahl's mother's attempted robbery, an entertaining and touching scene followed which unraveled the essence of the story and of the holiday message.

Amahl pleads for mercy and the kings forgive his mother. She is sincerely sorry, returns the gold even after the kings tell her she can keep it, and she is ashamed that she has nothing to send with them for the newborn king. Amahl offers his homemade crutch, and in doing so, is miraculously healed. Evidently, Menotti was inspired to write such a story because he was inexplicably cured of some ailment of his own during his childhood. Sewell selected the story as his company's mainstay holiday performance because his role as a shepherd in the performance when he was young marked his first experience on stage. He said the story thus holds a sense of magic for him.Although he markets "Amahl" as a refreshing off-shoot of typical, better-known holiday entertainment fare such as "The Nutcracker," dancers Brittany Fridenstine and Matthew Keefe actually performed Act II's "Pas de deux" from "The Nutcracker" before the performance of "Amahl." Preceding the main act, Sewell also performed a one-man rendition of Scott Joplin's "Rings," with the use of Chinese Linking Rings. Then, seven of the company's dancers unleashed a holiday season improvised piece that, while completely unusual, did not appear to be haphazard or unplanned in any way.Such is the skill of those well-practiced and well-bred with talent. And while the dancers tip-toed through each piece, wearing the respective costume of the given performance, the fact that they were literally on the tips of their toes - on the very points of their point shoes - almost faded into the thick forest of visual stimulation.

Information on upcoming Vilar Center shows can be found at More information on James Sewell Ballet can be found at Writer Shauna Farnell can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 610, or

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The VailDaily Updated Dec 22, 2004 02:44PM Published Dec 20, 2004 12:00AM Copyright 2004 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.