Jesuit Father Robert VerEecke, the longtime pastor of St. Ignatius Parish at Boston College, is also a dancer, a choreographer and the Jesuit Artist-in-Residence at Boston College, earning him the nickname “the dancing priest.”
Fr. VerEecke also founded the Boston Liturgical Dance Ensemble in 1980 to perform in church venues, and each Christmas the troupe produces a show. For 28 years, that show was “A Dancer’s Christmas,” a holiday tradition in Boston until 2008. For the past four years Fr. VerEecke’s ensemble has been performing “Christmas Reflections,” which includes an almost 80-member cast of professional dancers, Boston College students, alumni and others. The story reflects on the meaning of the season through Luke’s Gospel.
Fr. VerEecke was recently interviewed by the Boston Globe about his calling to the priesthood and to dance. The interview is below, along with a video of Fr. VerEecke discussing “Christmas Reflections” that shows the dancers in action.
Q. Are you a priest who happens to be a choreographer, or are the two inextricably combined?
A. They’re inextricably combined. When I think of Catholic ritual, there’s so much movement and choreography. What makes ritual work for people is a sense of flow and movement integrity. I work with young Jesuits and try to help them understand that sense of the larger picture. It’s such a passion, for me there is no separation between religious expression and movement expression. It always comes together quite spontaneously. It’s when I’m most alive.
Q. What happened when you were called to the priesthood at age 18?
A. I entered the Jesuits thinking I’d never have a chance to do anything artistically. Then in 1970, the Jesuits organized an artist institute and they had a track to study ballet, and I took that. When I started taking class, it was an epiphany. It gave me the vocabulary for choreographing, but the advantage of not having early training was that I was never set in a particular language of moving, so my choreography tends to be more from within. I feel free to use whatever comes.
Q. I know with all the “Nutcracker”s this time of year there was intense competition to get performers for “A Dancer’s Christmas.” Was that part of why you stopped the production after 2008?
A. The challenge was always mounting such a big production and trying to replace people every year without a huge budget, particularly male dancers. But the real issue is that I was very aesthetically pleased with the work that had evolved, so I said this is the last year. It had become absolutely perfect for me. It had reached its apex.
Q. But the very next year you were back with “Christmas Reflections” How did that come about?
A. There were all these children who were heartbroken that “A Dancer’s Christmas” was ending, and it got to me. We were all crying — one of my nicknames is Sobby Bobby. I just couldn’t say this is the end, so I said I’d try to think of what else we do, not on the same scale. “Christmas Reflections” is like “A Dancer’s Christmas” in miniature, like one of those little [snow] globes, very delicate and charming.
Q. “A Dancer’s Christmas” used pageantry, modern dance, ballet, and folk dance to tell the Christmas story from three historical periods. How different is the new show?
A. The pieces are shorter. It uses a lot of familiar Christmas music. The three-act format is still very similar. This first is scriptural, the second has the playfulness, the third has some of the repertory of the third act of “A Dancer’s Christmas.” One of the new pieces we added, which is a lot of fun, is “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” with the dancers representing all the characters. A local championship Irish dancer, Helen O’Dwyer, a BC alum, was a dancer for a number of years in “A Dancer’s Christmas.” I asked her if she thought her school might want to participate, and now there are 30 to 40 Irish dancers. We have a guest artist, Jamaican contemporary dancer Steven Cornwall, portraying Joseph, and he’s a spectacular dancer. He brings a beauty and strength that is very powerful to watch.
Q. You’ve always maintained that “A Dancer’s Christmas” created a unique sense of family and community among the performers. Have you been able to re-create that?
A. It’s what’s kind of magical about it, because people put a lot into it, and the story draws people in. A lot of people listen or sing these songs, especially more traditional carols, but they never had a chance to dance to them, and it can be powerful for them. “Silent Night” is the final number, with children joining adults in the end, and there’s something quite moving about seeing it all unfold.
Q. At the core, what do these shows mean to you and perhaps to the others who come to them year after year? What is the takeaway message?
A. It’s about the profound sense of joy that is available to all of us in the Christmas season, no matter how we celebrate it. From a religious point of view, it’s about God loving us so much that he wants to dance with us. These days there’s so much negative about God and salvation. My image is that God is enmeshed in the flesh of Jesus. He wants to have arms and legs so he can dance with us.