Getting to the soul of the Messiah [w/ slideshow]

  • November 25, 2011

TORONTO - Incarnation is the art of God. But the art that Ballet Creole practises has the same inspiration.

This year will be the 10th time the Toronto company dances the Soulful Messiah. It will also be its 10th version of the Christmas favourite set to Quincy Jones’ jazz-gospel-funk reinterpretation of Handel’s masterwork.

Each year the dance piece grows a little, sheds some skin, discovers a new wrinkle in the music, said choreographer and artistic director Patrick Parson.

“The idea was to create a whole ballet,” he said. “It just didn’t happen all at once.”

Interpreting the Quincy Jones-George Frideric Handel Messiah for dancers has given Parson the chance to revisit his childhood experience as an acolyte in Trinidad. By the time he got to Canada in the 1980s and he discovered that white, Anglo Catholics were calling acolytes “altar boys,” it occurred to him that his experience growing up Catholic was different.

“Going to church at home is totally different than going to church here,” he said in a proudly Caribbean accent.

But listening to a decidedly black version of Handel’s Messiah gave him the idea that those basic truths he grew up with can still be expressed in an Afro-Caribbean language.

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“It’s about people,” he said. “The subject matter becomes people. My whole Catholic experience was about people and their whole relationship with the unknown — which we call faith.”

A lot of dance is pretty abstract. It’s about how a body can move through space with or against the music. But Soulful Messiah is about more than dance.

“Some of the music has words,” Parson said.

“Words and music bring an emotional content, which draws out different people’s stories.”

Over the years Parson has had the opportunity to see how young people respond to Soulful Messiah.

“Children and youth respond to certain icons, certain visuals that I put into the piece,” he said.

“They say, ‘Yes, I get it. I see the crucifix. I see somebody mad at the world. I see somebody hurt.’ If you put the emotion into it, it’s supposed to speak the story.”

With Jones reinterpreting an 18th-century oratorio, Soulful Messiah is already a kind of jumbalaya of culture. With the added element of dance, Parson believes it can touch a wide variety of cultures because it has something absolutely essential at its core.

“What I found in this music was soul,” he said.

Soul is something we can all relate to.

The Soulful Messiah runs just three performances at Harbourfront’s Fleck Dance Theatre Dec. 2 and 3 at 8 p.m. and Dec. 4 at 3 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at

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