A Behind the Scenes Look at Christmas Around the World Artistic Director, Jeanette Geslison

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Jeanette Geslison grew up dancing classical ballet. When she attended BYU, she joined the basic folk dance ensemble and fell in love with exploring cultures through movement. Now as the artistic director of BYU’s Christmas Around the World, she shares the beautiful diversity of dance with students and audiences. This year’s performance will include a traditional Indonesian dance backed with the beat of this drum.

In 1987, Jeanette Geslison traveled from her home in Denmark to study dance at Provo’s true blue university. Every year since, she has participated in the annual Christmas Around the World concert. She began as a student dancer, and now she’s worked as the artistic director of the production for nine years. Each year she centers the dances around a common theme.

She has planned this year’s production since January and themed it “Light in the Window.”

Blue Christmas: Celebrating the color of peace and BYU

As someone who’s studied and taught international folk dance for more than 20 years, Christmas Around the World always resonates with Jeanette. Because of her own experience of immigrating to the United States from Denmark, this year’s theme especially strikes a chord.

“We live in a world that’s on the move,” she says. “I was interested in looking at how that movement has influenced the dance and music traditions. We’re calling this upcoming concert ‘Light in the Window’ because some traditions put a light in the window for travelers to help them see where they are. We’re exploring the concept that we can be a light unto all people.”

To her, the color blue primarily symbolizes hope — which links to this year’s theme of the migration.

“There are a lot of reasons why people move from one place to another. It’s my hope that we can experience some sort of peace by reaching out and being accepting and feeling the richness that we can gain from learning from others,” Jeanette says.

Around age 10, Jeanette attended performances of BYU’s Living Legends and BYU’s Young Ambassadors on separate occasions, during the groups’ international tour stops in Denmark. Enthralled with the idea of dancing on stages across the world, Jeanette started dreaming.

At age 18, she arrived in Provo and this classically trained ballerina auditioned for several dance companies — one of which was folk dance. She hadn’t had much experience in folk beyond learning traditional Danish dances from her grandmother, but when she started in the basic group on campus, she was hooked.

Jeanette had originally planned to stay one year. Each year presented a reason to stay for another — to audition for a higher dance team, to finish her degree, to marry Mark Geslison. And she’s lived in Provo ever since.

“One thing I’ve found over the years is I just followed my passion. I felt drawn to it,” she says.

Her passion has brought the joy of dance to others through teaching and performing.

“I never had a goal of being artistic director of the folk dance ensemble one day,” she says. “That was never part of my plan. I just knew I love to do this. Following passion can be a good thing because it can take you through doors you just never imagined you would be able to go through.”

Now leading the longest-running Christmas production at BYU, Jeanette plans year-round for the December production. This year’s performance will bring together over 200 dancers and musicians onto the stage at the BYU Marriott Center.

This year, students will contribute to the theme by sharing stories and traditions from immigrants. Some students are lucky enough to perform the folk dance from a country where their family originates.

“I involve the students because they are the heart of this concert,” she says.

The theme, “Light in the Window,” explores how people have come to the United States and brought their cultures and dances with them. The show will explore how those cultures affect dance in the United States and how the United States affects those dances.

“I understand what it feels like to come from somewhere else and be in a new place,” she says. “I was lucky enough to feel like I fit in quickly.”

She attributes that assimilation to the fact that she found community with people who have her same beliefs at BYU.

“But I know a lot of people who move from one place to the next and don’t feel like they fit in immediately,” she says. “I would hope that the concept of this particular concert would inspire people to be more understanding, reach out more and be more inclusive.”

No Time for the Blues

Each year, Christmas Around the World takes the stage of the BYU Marriott Center the week after Thanksgiving. The dancers practice for weeks in advance, but most audience members don’t realize that the dancers and crew have less than one week to set up and rehearse in the space they perform.

“We have to be vigilant about organizing every part of the production so we know exactly what our timeline is,” Jeanette Geslison says.

Here’s a backstage pass to the week leading up to Christmas Around the World:

  • Monday: Stage crew begins setting up in the BYU Marriott Center around 4 a.m., putting up lights, trusses and set pieces.
  • Tuesday: Stage work continues. They pause at 11:30 for devotional. In the evening, all performers attend the first tech rehearsal at the Marriott Center.
  • Wednesday: Both students and guest performers attend a second tech rehearsal.
  • Thursday: Guest performers work with technicians on a detailed sound check during the day. In the evening, everyone attends the one and only dress rehearsal.
  • Friday: About 5,000 elementary school children from all three school districts in Utah County attend the children’s matinée in the morning. First full show opens to the public in the evening.
  • Saturday: Matinée and evening performances are open to the public.

Originally published in the 2019 November/December issue of Utah Valley Magazine as “Blue Christmas: Celebrating the color of peace and BYU”

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