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On With the Show

Guidelines for greeting 2009 at Vermont's First Night fests


Published December 24, 2008 at 6:17 a.m.

Time can be tracked and overscheduled, but even the most sophisticated PDA calendar, iPhone or watch can’t slow its steady passage — here today, gone tomorrow. Regardless of whether 2008 brought your lucky day in the form of a personal or political victory, the year is officially history come December 31. New Year’s Eve revelers sift through the good stuff from the past 365 sun-ups — and clear the slate for the future — at one of three family-friendly First Night celebrations across the state.

You know the drill. Buy a button, pin it to your warmest coat, and tramp around town sampling a variety of alcohol-free events. Burlington boasts the biggest program, with 12 hours of activities providing continuous warm-hearted fun for cold-handed folks. Diversions range from art making to elegant aerial and acrobatic offerings from Brattleboro-based Gemini Trapeze and the kids of Circus Smirkus. Vocal enthusiasts lend an ear to melodies by blues singer Tammy Fletcher and singer-songwriter Patrick Fitzsimmons, put their feet up for restful anthems by Social Band, or hear all-dudette ditties from the women’s a cappella choir of Mount Mansfield Union High School. Jazzers jive to up-and-coming youth soloists Chloe Brisson and Erin Bentlage. Yuksters chuckle at musical-comedy faux-siblings The Hokum Brothers. Husband-and-wife storytelling duo The Laughing Couple tell Abenaki tales. And all that covers just a corner of the evening’s canvas. Fireworks in Waterfront Park paint the town parti-colored at 7 p.m. and midnight.

Rutland is out of the First Night game this year, but in Montpelier and St. Johnsbury, the action gets underway in midafternoon. Capital City celebrants can start out with ice skating or a 5K road race, learn the score from the Vermont Fiddle Orchestra, pick up the beat with Oasis Middle Eastern Dance, and finally settle in for classical compositions with flutist Karen Kevra or pianist Michael Arnowitt. A choice of chili or lasagna supper gives viewers stamina for the parade and early-bird fireworks, from 8 to 9. Rounding out the evening, The Chrome Cowboys play until midnight at a city-wide dance party — then send tired saddle-riders home. St. Johnsbury joy seekers take a turn at public karaoke, gaze at a starry planetarium show by Fairbanks Museum staff, do some contra dancing, or catch a concert. Parents of little kids can opt for magic shows or a mini-circus, but if tykes want to see sky-blossoms, they’ll have to stay up till 12 to bring in the new year with a bang.

Volunteers are needed in each of the three cities; those who sign up for a few hours’ work receive a free button and, in Montpelier’s case, a meal.

Here’s to a fine 2009!


One Ring Binder

Despite their name, Barbara Paulson and Dan Baginski, founders of the Randolph-based No Strings Marionette Company, do use threads to move their puppets — they’re just not shy about showing it. Their modus operandi entails letting the audience watch them animate their handcrafted figurines during performances — so the puppets get jerked around, but spectators see what’s what. The duo entertains kids and adults alike with their new small-stage adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Under the wizard Gandalf’s guidance, furry-footed “halfling” hero Bilbo Baggins joins a group of dwarves to reclaim a dragon’s hoard, and his discovery of an all-powerful bauble results in the realization that Tolkien’s characters are, well, puppets in a larger epic. First Night attendees settle in for No Strings’ fantasy fête at two separate performances in Montpelier and St. Johnsbury.

No Strings Marionette Company

Union School Gym, Montpelier, 3-4:45 p.m.

Fuller Hall, St. Johnsbury Academy, St. Johnsbury, 8:30-9:45 p.m.


Quad Squad

Champlain Valley residents can bet that 2009 will bring a closer look at the French explorer for whom their lake is named — Samuel de Champlain’s “discovery” of it and the native peoples living there put him on the map 400 years ago. This summer, Vermont, New York, Québec and France join forces for a quadricentennial party slated for the Queen City’s waterfront, and Burlington’s First Night kicks off the celebrations with a preview parade. Abenaki singing and chanting fill the air, and large-scale salmon, bear and osprey puppets accompany the customary dragons and drums. (For those who can’t get into the troupe’s two ticketed Flynn stage shows, it’s another chance to catch Burlington Taiko.) After a festive participatory march down the Marketplace, revelers congregate in front of City Hall. There, as many as 10 music, dance and storytelling ensembles from this year’s First Night lineup offer snippets of performances representing “the lake, the land and the people,” plus a peek at plans for July’s multifaceted fest honoring Native American and French-Canadian arts, culture and history.

400 Years Together’ ParadeChurch Street Marketplace to City Hall Park, Burlington, 6-6:30 p.m.


Talent Take-Out

New Year’s inspires fixation on the future — and what better time to showcase an up-and-coming generation? In keeping with a nascent annual tradition, First Night Burlington has multiple venues where local legends trade stage space with tomorrow’s performers. Half a dozen young local movement, music and theater soloists and ensembles, including Spotlight on Dance (pictured) highlight the skills of middle- and high-school students. Five celebrity judges join emcee and “Late Night Saturday” host Tim Kavanagh for the Rising Star Search, where teens tussle for the chance to gig on Kavanagh’s WCAX show. The Williston-based trad-folk-rock quartet Pale Fire — talent-show torch-bearers, since they were last year’s runners-up — ignite the night’s proceedings with sparky sounds.

Spotlight on Dance

Edmunds Middle School, Burlington, 1-1:40 p.m. & 6-6:40 p.m.

Rising Star Search

Main Floor, Memorial Auditorium, Burlington, 8-10:30 p.m.


A Mighty Wind

Even in the mildest winter, no one welcomes a northerly breeze. Unless, of course, it happens to be Le Vent du Nord. The Québecois quartet has taken the folk world by storm with a high-energy mixture of instrumentalism, joie de vivre step-dancing and four-part a cappella harmonies. Since 2002, the band has racked up international laurels for its lively updates of authentic Francophone tunes. The group’s most recent recording, Dans les airs, has been tapped for “Best Traditional” at the Canadian Folk Music Awards. Members span two generations and play at least nine instruments between them, including the bodhran, bones, jaw harp and hurdy-gurdy. Listeners won’t be able to keep their feet still. But then again, who’d want to?

Le Vent du Nord

Flynn MainStage, Burlington, 9-10 p.m.


Soap on a Rope

Anyone can blow bubbles, but it takes patience and skill to “train” them. In a tabletop show developed by Circus Smirkus founder Rob Mermin, a squeaky-clean routine features nature’s most efficient encapsulations of air. Bubbles appear inside each other, form squares, pyramids and other shapes, and “walk” a tightrope in this miniature circus. Successes are made sweeter by the inevitable — and unpredictable — pops of the “performers,” and audience participation is encouraged. Why do some bubbles cave to atmospheric pressure sooner? Just ask: After 30 minutes devoted to the evanescent spheres, with musical accompaniment, Mermin does a Q&A on the science and technique of soapy stunts.

Bubble Brothers Soap Suds Circus

Unitarian Church Vestry, Burlington, 5-6:45 p.m.


Company’s Calling

Vermont can lay claim to its fair share of folk musicians, but Woods Tea Company stands among the giants of the state’s guitar-strumming scene. The four-person band has toured almost incessantly for the past 23 years, entertaining both regional and national audiences. Though the lineup has evolved since the 2007 passing of founder Rusty Jacobs, the quality of multi-instrumental musicianship has remained high: Green Mountain State songbird Patti Casey recently added her talents to the Woods kitchen-table sound. The members of the Tea Company do play bluegrass and sing chanteys, and French-Canadian clogging features in some numbers, but if they had to lay claim to one musical tradition, it would probably be Celtic. Put yourself in good company at the band’s back-to-back St. Johnsbury sets, or catch Casey in solo concert an hour later.

Woods Tea Company

North Congregational Church, St. Johnsbury, 7-8:45 p.m.

Patti Casey

South Congregational Church, St. Johnsbury, 10-10:45 p.m.