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Reveling Roms

Area residents perform in Christmas production that explores the Romani, or Gypsy, culture.

While the area gets ready for the winter holidays with frenzied gift shopping and tree decorating, several Northern Virginians are preparing for the holiday season by becoming immersed in a culture and a time far removed from the hustle and bustle of Washington life.

These Virginians are part of the Christmas production with the Washington Revels, to be performed at Lisner Auditorium in Washington, D.C. This year's show, “The Roads of the Roma,” features the culture and traditions of the Romani, or Gypsy, people, as they migrate from their roots in northwest India through Persia, Eastern Europe, France and Spain.

"It's actually fun getting to share a stage with an international group of performers and to get to learn about a people I knew almost nothing about, but knew of for years and years and years," said Woodbridge resident Diana Lewis-Chun, an elementary-school special-education teacher.

As members in the adult, teen and children's choruses of the production, these area residents have learned aspects of the folklore and customs of the Romani people, including circle dances from Eastern Europe and more than 20 songs spanning six languages.

But what makes this production so striking for several chorus members is its message of understanding and peace, given the current U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are also attracted to learning about the different folk traditions of another culture, as well as the sense of community that results from working with others in the production.

"I think it's timely because of the conflict with the Middle East right now and of the increased interest in cultures different from us," said Arlington resident Ann Bayliss, a bilingual secretary for the Embassy of Morocco. "And I like the way it's well researched. And I like the family aspect, too."

Revels' music co-director, Judy Harrison, agreed. A Reston resident and music director of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax in Oakton, Harrison has been involved in Washington Revels productions for more than 15 years.

"I think that Revels to me is about wonderful music, but it's also about people connecting," Harrison said.

Rehearsals for the production began last September, with the choruses learning music and dance primarily from Eastern Europe and France. Because most of the material was unfamiliar territory for the chorus members, they received quick instruction of the differences in singing and dancing Eastern European style. For instance, singers had to learn how to produce a vocal sound similar to what one would hear from the Bulgarian Women's Choir, vs. a sound from the classical vocal music tradition.

"It's always an interesting challenge to sing in a different way, in a different style, in a different culture, in a different language," said Mike Matheson of McLean, a consultant and member of the George Washington University Law faculty.

Springfield resident David Giusti, who is a member of the teen chorus, particularly enjoyed learning the music.

"I've never done any of the Eastern European music before. It's really interesting, especially the rhythm," Giusti said.

Even the children in the production learned folk dances and music different from what they would see on television.

"I like all the dances. It's fun to learn the dances of other cultures," said Jason Noone, a third-grader at Haycock Elementary in Falls Church. Jason's grandfather, Falls Church resident and Washington Post reporter Pete Behr, is also in the production.

Jason had never sung in any language other than English before, but he said the singing and dancing were easy for him. "It's kind of hard, but also kind of easy," he explained.

While the chorus members, all non-paid volunteers, were learning the music for the production, the artistic staff was busy shaping the show for its December run. To give the production a rugged, outdoor atmosphere, production crews created a landscape using wooden platforms and cloth to look like rocky hills.

"It's going to be particularly exciting because of the different colors and the eras," said Elisabeth Myers, a trial lawyer from Alexandria. Myers also performs in other area choral groups, including the early music ensemble Carmina. "The set is going to be gorgeous this year."

Several guest artists round out the production, including Khanci Dos, a Romani band for Budapest, Hungary; local flamenco artist Anna Menendez; local actor Oran Sandel portraying Old Rom, an archetypal storyteller; Ukrainian musician and cimbalom player Alexander Fedoriouk; and violinist Susan Worland.

"I like music with a flair, and I think the music of the Roma has always had that," said Harrison, who visited Romania and Transylvania three times with the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax.

It was those visits that has made Harrison identify with this year's show more than those of previous years. "I have felt that we've had personal connections with this show," she added.

Indeed, this show is the Washington Revels’ 21st production, the first occurring in 1983. Each winter production has reflected a different country and time, with previous productions highlighting the cultures of Victorian England, Renaissance Italy and Civil War-era Baltimore. Its concept of combining music, dance, theater and folklore to explore the changing of the seasons was created by John Langstaff, a former instructor at the Potomac School in McLean.

"I like how we involve the community and how it's from all over the place, not just one area," said Keegan Cassady of Vienna, a Madison High School sophomore.

Besides the annual Christmas production, the Washington Revels also has a May Day program at the Washington National Cathedral and performs outreach programs on the traditional performing arts for area youth.

The Christmas production is "an exposure to something new and different," Bayliss said.