Something old, something new: that’s what’s at the core of Washington Revels and their appearance on Sunday at BlackRock Center for the Arts in Germantown. Think age-old traditions — from a butterfly-themed “Monarchs of the May” parade to a Maypole dance and a Mummers’ play — in a spot that’s brand-new to the Silver Spring based cultural institution, at an event that’s a first for BlackRock.
“We’re going to BlackRock for the very first time, and we’re so excited about that,” said Roberta Gasbarre, the director, choreographer and arts education specialist who serves as Washington Revels’ artistic director. “I’ve known BlackRock for years and years — the community is thriving — and one of our board members had been involved with BlackRock, and said ‘We’ve got to get up there!’ So we started planning this, and we’re excited to be part of BlackRock’s spring celebration.”
For BlackRock, an arts organization and performance venue that offers live music and theater as well as year-round arts education, summer camps and a fine arts gallery, the event is a way to play host to the community it serves with a free outdoor party to celebrate spring — and showcase the talents of local musicians and entertainers. While traditional musicians and dancers take the stage — the Kuchipudi Dance Academy performing a traditional Indian program, the Culkin School of Dance sharing Irish step dance performances, the Maryland MacMillan United Pipe Bands offering Celtic traditional music and Story Tapestries presenting a music-dance-story combination — craft vendors and food trucks will also be on hand.
And at 4 p.m., the crowd, seated on lawn chairs and blankets or dancing around the BlackRock periphery, will be treated to the sights and sounds of 100 professional and highly-qualified amateur performers, courtesy of Washington Revels.
Gasbarre remembers getting her first look at the now 35-year-old arts organization at the invitation of one of its early directors, Gayle Jaster. “She said, ‘Oh, you would really love this Revels thing,’ and I said, ‘What is it?’ And she said, ‘Come see!’”
Gasbarre did, discovering that “it was all about audience engagement — which I’ve always loved. It was multi-generational, multi-ethnic, multi-religion. It really was an amazing amalgam of what makes Washington, D.C. and the DMV area so exciting. I had never seen anything like it.”
Interactive, multigenerational and bursting with music: the kids and adults of the May Revels chorus.
Courtesy of Washington Revels
While Washington Revels is a featured performer at BlackRock’s SpringFest on Sunday, the organization is probably best known for its Christmas Revels, although it operates year-round and offers a variety of events to “create community through celebration,” according to its mission statement. An offshoot of Revels, a nationwide organization founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1971, Washington Revels (like its counterparts in other American cities) is an independent nonprofit with its own board, staff, finances, etc.
Current Washington Revels Executive Director Greg Lewis started performing with the group in 1983. “It’s sort of a family love affair,” he noted. A board member at first, Lewis became executive director in 2005, “with the intention of expanding the Revels, which was at that time largely the Christmas Revels, the May Revels, a Pub Sing and very occasional runouts, to make it more of a year-round organization.”
That meant adding education programs, forming an ensemble and reaching out to the community with performances and participation-based programs. “That’s where the audience are the performers,” he explained. “Things like community sings, community dances, parades —we’re doing a lot more in that area.” Which is what brings the group to Germantown, where BlackRock’s role as a community arts hub will get a boost as it hosts an event where families and neighbors can take part in the music and dancing, or just sit back on a lawn chair and enjoy it.
“Revels is very participatory, generally,” said Lewis. “All our big productions have a sing-along, dance-along element.” It’s part of a human tradition, he said — especially when it comes to handing down the songs and steps of a particular culture and binding families and communities together. And the May Revels goes back to the rural traditions of Western England, where springtime was celebrated with feasting, music and dance — for everyone.
“These (community dances) are simpler,” he explained. “They’re meant to be performed by everyone; traditionally, guests to the community would be invited in to be part of it, learn it, pick it up, so it’s designed to be easy, to be multi-generational.”
That part is traditional, said Lewis, but there’s more to the Revels mission than passing down old songs and dances. “That’s valuable,” he said. “But we have 300 performers in a given year who will perform with us in one thing or another — 300 volunteers, professionals and non-professionals. The whole purpose of this is both to enlarge the number of performance-based ensembles, and also to give people the opportunity to get together as a community and sing and dance.”
So would-be Washington Revels performers can audition to be part of the group. And more casual music and dance fans can head to BlackRock on Sunday. “It’s our first time going up county, which we’ve wanted to do for a long time,” said Lewis. “Our ensembles do perform there, occasionally, but this is the first time we’re taking one of our biggest productions up county.”
Something new — and exciting — for this group known for preserving the traditions of old.
(May 2, 2019) – Due to the high probability of rain in the forecast, BlackRock Center for the Arts has preemptively decided to move its free, inaugural BlackRock SpringFest indoors on Sunday, May 5.
The Washington Revels perform at 4 p.m. at SpringFest, on Sunday May 5, 2 to 6 p.m., at BlackRock Center for the Arts, 12901 Town Commons Drive, Germantown. Admission is free. Call 301-528-2260 or visit www.blackrockcenter.org.