One of the big disappointments this holiday season comes from our inability to share seasonal moments with friends, family and the larger community, due to the Covid pandemic. I will still shop downtown but, as someone who collaborates with Catamount Arts to produce performing arts events in the Northeast Kingdom, I always look forward to our holiday offerings that have included The Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, The Vienna Choir Boys and Cape Breton fiddler, Natalie MacMaster. This annual coming together with others marks a relaxing ritual – and high point.
We do have Natalie MacMaster, husband and fellow ace fiddler Donnell Leahy and their cool kids, performing an online holiday show, through the end of the month. And we have perennial favorites, Pink Martini, also available, Thursday December 17th, for 48 hours. Both shows are available through the Catamount and KCP Presents websites. But seeing them online is not the same.
For other holiday offerings online, I’d suggest the New York City Ballet, offering its renowned performance of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker at the ballet company’s website. Lincoln Center is staging a holiday-themed big band concert at the Jazz and Lincoln Center website. Both are good bets.
I also like to program films, something I’ve done since showing Charlie Chaplin’s “Limelight,” co-starring Claire Bloom and Buster Keaton in May 1975 at the Lyndon State College Twilight Theater. And, each year, I try to imagine films that are appropriate for the season while generally avoiding the obvious choices that get played everywhere, every year. I remember showing Ingmar Bergman’s film version of “The Magic Flute” back in the 1980’s. It’s energy, spirit and look seemed perfect for the holidays, even though it doesn’t tell a seasonal tale.
This year I needed to come up with two documentary films for The Billings Farm and Museum’s film series – and I thought for a while before coming up with Scott Ressler’s new film for National Geographic, “The Last Ice,” that travels up to the Arctic to check in on both the environmental and cultural impacts of our changing climate. Ressler captures the region’s stunning winter beauty – and checks in with Inuit people who are struggling to adapt.
I also selected Alison Reid’s “The Woman Who Loved Giraffes”- for several reasons that may not be readily apparent. First, there are the animals themselves. Of all of the creatures that walk the earth, these unusual and graceful creatures command our immediate attention and affection. Giraffes are strikingly beautiful, with their warm coloring, distinctive markings and almost regal bearing. They bound across seemingly endless African plains and, when we look at giraffes, we smile. And marvel at their splendor. This seemed like something appropriate for a holiday season where we are somewhat confined.
Then, of course, is their size. Giraffes are the tallest animals in the world with their long legs and extraordinary necks. And they seem perpetually happy – though who can really tell? But they appear to have a kind of whimsical smile, sort of like camels, and they travel in small herds, suggesting an easy camaraderie with each other. Even when they tangle, giraffes don’t seem to lose too much of their composure, appearing to playfully spar with each other, using only their necks.
Good documentaries rely on compelling characters. These people can be driven or obsessed or larger-than-life in any number of ways. For “The Woman Who Loves Giraffes” we’re introduced to a woman who is revealed to us for her infinite grace, equanimity, modesty and wisdom at the ripe age of 85. This world’s first “giraffologist,” Dr. Anne Innis Dagg, gently takes us into her captivating world, re-tracing the steps of her groundbreaking 1956 solo journey to South Africa to study these giraffes. Just 23 years old at the time, Dagg took this trip four years before Jane Goodall ventured into the world of chimpanzees and seven years before Dian Fossey left to work with mountain gorillas – in fact, before anyone, man or woman had traveled to Africa to study animal behavior in the wild.
When Dagg returned home a year later, armed with ground-breaking research, she faced insurmountable barriers as a female scientist that proved much harder to overcome than the logistical challenges of her initial journey. The film charts her course navigating this thicket of obstacles that were particular to the 1950’s but remain for many women today.
“The Woman Who Loved Giraffes” captures Anne Dagg’s infectious joy and endless generosity – fitting qualities to embrace during the holiday season. Dagg’s commitment to her work and her enduring love and commitment to these strange and astonishing creatures is also nothing short of exemplary.
The film teaches us more than we can even conceive about giraffes - and it provides a marker for the dawning of a New Year that promises better things to come and the chance to apply what we have learned or imagined during our months of reflective isolation. It reminds us that it makes good sense to honor our natural world and appreciate the nourishment we get from its rich bounty. And it invites us to recognize the sublime and satisfying grace made clear by this unusual woman’s life, well lived in service to something larger than any of us – literally.
Happy holidays – and warm wishes for a New Year that takes flight!