the history and legacy of WinterSong's most beloved dance
Nowell Sing We
A winter solstice tradition choreographed by Carol Anderson
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Nowell: A Brief History
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1) Arwyn Carpenter and Amanda Porter, 1988; 2) Matthias Sperling, 1991; 3) Lara Munro and Laura Morrison, 1994; 4) Britton Darby, Brian Lawson, and Heather Leslie, 2000.
Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann
The Choreographer's Story
Nowell Sing We was providential, created and premiered in 1988 when I was in a major transition from the company I’d worked with for many years, moving into a different creative relationship with the Toronto dance community.
Carol Anderson by Sashar Zarif
Connecting with CCDT was a revelation - these beautiful fresh young dancers - in 1988 some of them were barely more than babies! - inspired in me new ideas about creating with dancers other than adult professionals. Michael and Deborah described their vision for a solstice celebration… I thought of the significance of the time of year, of my own cultural history, of western tradition and music, and consulted my frequent collaborator, the multi-talented, multi-instrumental musician/composer Kirk Elliott - who also is a medieval musicke enthusiast and scholar, aka Tristan Shoute. He suggested a suite of medieval carols, and I said yes, entranced by their purity, beauty - and speed. Along with creating a piece for that wildly diverse group of young dancers, who, in 1988, ranged from sophisticated movers to really little kids - I set myself a choreographic challenge of somehow reflecting the medieval take on life as “nasty, brutish, and short…” in creating fast, shifting kaleidoscopes of movement. The first time I watched the estampie, at the end of the second carol, I was amazed the dancers didn’t all crash into one another and fall down. Actually, I still am, every time I watch it…
Since 1988, every CCDT company member has danced this work, making it something of a rite of passage… amazing! With my dance historian hat on, apart from The Nutcracker, I can’t think of a single work of dance that is consistently annually performed. While I still miss Tristan Shoute’s fabulous live performances in the first WinterSong seasons, it’s always a treat to watch Nowell.
— Carol Anderson, written for WinterSong's 30th Anniversary in 2017
a solstice tradition in the making
WATCH: a Nowell Sing We mini-documentary film by Vickie Fagan
Recreating Medieval Music
The three carols - Sing We to this Merry Company; Ah, Man, Assay; and Nowell Sing We - date from the late 15th century, and are part of a musical style called “fauxbourdon” ... a type of music where two parts, one high, one lower, are written out, but in the performance of these pieces the singers would add a third part, in a style considerably more “modern” , to our ears. The other composition, an estampie sometimes called “English Dance” is even older, dating from the 13th Century.
I would sing and play violin, mandolin, recorder and psaltery... Sharon Keates would sing the solo parts and play recorder, too. Paul Shilton, another friend, played the synthesizer - a very modern instrument in those days. My brother Stuart played the soprano saxophone and sang. Richard Armin played an electric cello (which he designed himself!) and we were very lucky to have Michael Baker, the well known composer for dance, playing percussion and singing.
Excerpts of Nowell Sing We, 1994 performance by CCDT, the Tristan Shoute Festival Players, and the Toronto Children's Chorus under the direction of Jean Ashworth Bartle
Premiere Dance Theatre, Toronto
Rehearsals were exhilarating, to say the least! In the olden times of 1988, CCDT had a considerable number of very young dancers – they were very small and very fast! We quickly found out that the estampie would have to be much faster than the band could play. Almost twice as fast! We stopped counting, “One, Two, Three, Four,” and started counting just, “One. One. One. One.” ... I’ll never forget the panicky rush of squinting at the many, many small notes on the page, picking up different instruments to play, singing in Latin and English mixed together, conducting the band, and looking down over my right shoulder to make eye contact with the conductor of the children's chorus!
— Kirk Elliott, Arranger and Musical Performer of Nowell Sing We's medieval carols
Photo by Sunshine Slater
Nowell in Photos
by David Hou
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Carol Anderson’s Nowell Sing We will absolutely always have a special place in my heart.