A good holiday songbook should have tunes from A Charlie Brown Christmas.
San Francisco jazz composer Vince Guaraldi’s melodic proto-Muzak revolutionized easy listening, and the songs he contributed to the Peanuts Christmas special became his most recognizable. The best-known plays over a scene of Charles Schulz’ big-headed kids dancing in dorky, self-possessed ways onstage. You’ve probably heard it if you’ve stepped foot in a mall early winter (even if you don’t realize it’s called “Linus and Lucy”). But can you clap along? The syncopation can throw you off; the Peanuts characters don’t even jig entirely on beat.
Guaraldi’s soundtrack has inspired lighthearted, “jazzy” ballet on the East Coast, but it took Erinn Liebhard, artistic director of St. Paul-based dance company Rhythmically Speaking, to embody those slinky grooves. She performs and choreographs vernacular dance, the loose form that grew up in American bars, clubs, and other public spaces of unabashed bopping (as did Liebhard, the child of a Twin Cities rock musician father). It’s where swing, jazz, and tap dance came from. Liebhard loved A Charlie Brown Christmas as a kid, and today she sees why: “When I close my eyes and hear this music, I’ve always just seen dance.”
Last winter, at the kid- and beer-friendly setting of Amsterdam Bar & Hall in St. Paul, Liebhard’s concert Chill (named for the laid-back vibes of both the music and the venue) employed a clutch of dancers to improvise moves to four songs from the soundtrack. The dancers dressed in bright solids, and Liebhard took her cue from the hair-whipping Peanuts girl in purple. “My mom and I would always do that little dance when we watched the movie, so we were the purple twins.”
As for the sphinx-like beat: “As long as the rhythm in your feet is correct, you get to make choices in your upper body, in your head and your ribs, as to how it works.” Liebhard focuses on this in her career generally. “Learning to understand rhythm well enough to share a pattern but not to sterilize it—that’s a special skill.”
Her organization Rhythmically Speaking produces the show, and the amicable idiosyncrasies on display in that rug-cutting scene echo the nonprofit’s mission. For 10 years, Rhythmically Speaking has worked with local and national artists to transplant vernacular dance from its bright, commercial, Broadway greenhouse to its original soil—in easygoing communal venues, reconnected to the diversity that spawned it, and prioritizing dancers’ uniqueness over synchronicity.
For Chill 2.0, Liebhard made sure to nurture those differences. She invited eight dancers to her house for chips, salsa, cocoa, and a viewing of A Charlie Brown Christmas, to listen to Guaraldi’s songs—often wistful (“Christmas Time Is Here”), mellow, (the arrangement of “O Tannenbaum”), and innocent (“Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”).
She asked them to write down feelings that swirl around the holidays. Charlie Brown’s central conflict is that he can’t figure this out. The dancers wrote: “I wish I were closer to my family,” “curling up on the couch and smelling the Christmas cookies my mom is making and wishing for that innocence and lack of responsibility that came with childhood.”
“A lot of nostalgia,” Liebhard notes. “The season asks for so much human connection, so it causes a multitude of feelings.” St. Paul native Charles Schulz somehow made Charlie Brown’s ever-suffered melancholy identifiably Minnesotan. (Maybe something about those flat backgrounds, or the muffled scorn in “Good grief.”) The kismet of staging this reckoning in Schulz’ hometown is not lost on Liebhard; she marvels at it.
Local jazz quartet GST plays the soundtrack’s eight major songs chronologically, in time to projections of the cartoon. Lines read aloud—by Liebhard’s musician husband as well as by the 10-year-old daughter of GST’s guitarist—will remind audiences of the surprisingly mature storyline. But it’s really about the way movements—half choreographed, half improvised—capture Guaraldi’s enduring music, Charlie Brown.
“My excitement doing nearly the entire soundtrack this time around is to shift through all of those moods,” Liebhard says, “and allow people to do the same.”
Ages 12 and under are free; adults pay $16 in advance, $18 at the door
Amsterdam Bar & Hall, 6 W. Sixth St., St. Paul