Thursday, June 2, 2016

Aakash Odedra's transcendent dance with the divine and the damned

Live Deliciously

Posted by Chris Haire on Thu, Jun 2, 2016 at 12:07 PM

Spoiler Alert: Do not read any further unless you want to know details about the climax to The Witch.


When writer-director Robert Eggers released the 2016 frightener The Witch, critics universally praised this terrifying mediation on pride and paranoia. The Witch is set during the early days of colonial New England when the devout Pilgrims sought to create a Holy Land in the New World but ultimately fall victim to the same sins which have bedeviled mankind since time immemorial.

Centered around a family of exiled true believers, Egger's folk tale is fascinating for its depiction of the era and its ability to create a mood that only grows darker and more dire as the film reaches its horrifying conclusion when the family billy goat, Black Philip, is finally revealed as the Prince of Darkness himself. By this point, Black Philip has either corrupted every one in the family or killed them, all except the virginal Thomasin, who has been accused of being the titular witch by her now-dead parents and siblings.

Broken and alone, Thomasin willingly gives over her soul to Satan, signing her name in his unholy book. As the film closes, Thomasin joins her fellow witches who are dancing with wild abandon around a fire in the New England countryside. Naked, gyrating, and in the midst of a some sort of sinister ritual, Thomasin's body slowly rises from the earth and soars to the top of trees as ecstasy washes over her face. It is a look of unrestrained joy and freedom, a look that runs counter to our preconceived notions of how this moment should be, as good character willingly joins the dark side.

Watching all of this, I was reminded of the performance I had seen earlier in the day by the Indian-influenced British dancer Aakash Odedra called Rising. It was a work that was filled with moments of what felt like religious ecstasy. One piece in particular, In the Shadow of Man, came to mind in those closing minutes of The Witch

Underneath somber red lighting, Odedra was on his knees as the performance began. He was completely still. But then his body began to move, his bony shoulder blades seemingly pushing his skin to what surely seemed like the point at which it would tear. And at that moment, it became clear that what we were witnessing was the birth of a terrifying creature, a beast that would grow to something rough and fearsome but which was now frail, frightened, and alone in the world. Black Philip would have been pleased. Thomasin would have understood.

However, that one work, regardless of how much it left an impression on myself and many others in attendance, was the lone moment in Odedra's well-staged exploration of light and darkness in which the dark was, if not victorious, winning. The other works were transcendent, drawing the audience into a spiritual rush that was as powerful as a tent revival or the endless spins of a whirling dervish. If anyone had lost their religion prior to this show, they surely found it as Odedra danced among slivers of light which seemingly cut the stage or the bright orbs which hung from the ceiling like stars in the hands of their creator.

As the show came to a close, Odedra took hold of one of the glowing orbs. He shook, he shivered, he seemingly felt pleasures — and terrors — that few but the most holy have ever felt before. And while he didn't ascend to the lights, it was clear that his spirit and ours had briefly touched both the damned and the divine.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Spoleto 2016: The outside press have their say

... and the word is good

Posted by Chris Haire on Wed, Jun 1, 2016 at 2:45 PM

JULIA LYNN PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Julia Lynn Photography
Sometimes, it's easy to forget that Spoleto Festival USA is an international arts festival. For some Charlestonians, Spoleto can often feel like just another event in our packed calendar, even though for others it's the most anticipated event of the year — you can count me among the latter.

But for those who have a decidedly blasé feeling about Spoleto, it may come as some shock that arts lovers around the nation and across the world are very much interested in our city's premier arts festival. And this year is no different, with media outlets from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal, the Charlotte Observer to the Financial Times of London all having a little something to say about this year's offerings. At the top of the list is Spoleto's production of the Gershwin-Heyward classic Porgy and Bess. 

First up the Charlotte Observer. Lawerence Toppman writes:

“Porgy and Bess” had to wait 40 years for Spoleto to give it the attention it deserved. (Well, almost all the attention: The festival chose not to use supertitles, so anyone who doesn’t know DuBose Heyward’s libretto will frequently be lost.) Small sections have been cut, notably Porgy’s “Buzzard Song,” and one of the two intermissions has been dropped to shorten your stay in Gaillard Center. What’s left flies by over more than three hours, giving pleasure in every scene.

The terrific Lester Lynch sets the tone as Porgy with excellent diction, jovial humor and a sense of deep pathos that belongs to the crippled beggar called “a piece of a man” by Sportin’ Life (cheerfully sleazy Victor Ryan Robertson, a fine Almaviva in Opera Carolina’s “Barber of Seville” seven years ago).

There’s no weak link in the cast, from Alyson Cambridge’s poignant Bess and Eric Greene’s malevolently sexy Crown down to street criers selling honey, strawberries and deviled crabs. The Johnson C. Smith University Concert Choir, which makes up half the chorus, sang and acted with beauty and conviction.

Director David Herskovits and painter Green, who designed both set and costumes, can claim a large share of the triumph. They let the region’s Gullah influences creep into the show slowly, until those take over at last in a riot of color that gives Catfish Row a sense of unity.
James R. Oestreich of the New York Times also sung the opera's praises, writing:

 It took 40 years, but the Spoleto Festival USA has finally claimed its birthright, George Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess,” and done it in high style. On Friday evening, the festival opened a beautiful new production with an excellent cast and striking visual design by Jonathan Green in the resplendently renovated Charleston Gaillard Center...

Mr. Green, himself Gullah, drew extensively on West African motifs in his visual design. His concepts are evocatively carried through in the sets, designed by Carolyn Mraz, and costumes, by Annie Simon...

The production was well worth waiting for. David Herskovits directs a large cast, invaluably including the concert choir of the Johnson C. Smith University, in Charlotte, N.C. The communal singing throughout was superb.

Standout performers were many: Lester Lynch as Porgy, the sturdy cripple, and Alyson Cambridge as Bess, the warmhearted (and here, warm-voiced) prostitute he loves; Courtney Johnson as Clara (who sang an ethereal “Summertime”); Victor Ryan Robertson, as Sportin’ Life, the “happy dust” dealer; and Eric Greene as Crown, Bess’s current lover, in a menacing portrayal. So menacing, in fact, that there were pockets of applause when Porgy broke Crown’s neck...

The opera effectively displayed the acoustics of the revamped hall, which was designed by Paul Scarbrough of Akustiks. The acoustics of the Gaillard, which has been in use since October, are vastly improved, though not so much that supertitles would not have been welcome in “Porgy.”
The Wall Street Journal's Heidi Waleson offered up a review that looked at the challenges facing the work, bring up the very timely issue of cultural appropriation on the part of George Gershwin and Charleston's DuBose Heyward. Waleson notes:

The festival approached both potential pitfalls by engaging Jonathan Green, a local artist who was born in a Gullah community, as visual designer for the production. Mr. Green’s exuberantly colorful vision, executed by set designer Carolyn Mraz, costume designer Annie Simon, and lighting designer Lenore Doxsee, suggested that Catfish Row was a vibrant West African transplant rather than a downtrodden slum shadowed by the legacy of slavery.

The overlay worked. The set, with its recognizable Charleston buildings— one brick, with an archway and a wrought-iron gate; one wooden, with an open balcony—sprouted diamond-pattern decorations on their walls and shutters as the show went on, giving things an exotic look. So, too, did the costumes, whose brightly printed fabrics and elaborately tied headwraps would have looked right at home in a marketplace in Ghana. The white costumes for the picnic on Kittiwah Island channeled Alvin Ailey’s spiritual-based dance “Revelations” and underscored the scene’s festive mood, while Sportin’ Life’s pink suit, Crown’s indigo ensemble, and Serena’s somber “church lady” skirt and jacket made those characters stand out.

The concept effectively played down the darker themes of the opera to focus on Porgy’s strength and determination, and Lester Lynch sang the role with imposing force. Alyson Cambridge made a fragile Bess, easily seduced back into her bad old ways of dope and dangerous men; her slightly edgy soprano wasn’t flattered by the hall’s dry acoustics. Indra Thomas stood out as an honest, big-voiced Serena, and Victor Ryan Robertson made Sportin’ Life a community member, not just a weaselly villain. The splendid chorus, the Johnson C. Smith University Concert Choir, sang with a rich, vibrant sound and fine ensemble; the orchestra, under Stefan Asbury, played with verve and authority.
Waleson, like the previous two writers, noted the opera's most apparent stumble: the unintelligible vocals. However, she also took issue with the very visual presence of stage hands as being a distraction. While I understand where she is coming from, they were no more difficult to imagine away than it was to imagine that the palmetto trees that rose up from the stage were in fact pieces of painted plywood. She also made it a point to note that all the stagehands were white, but I attended Friday's show and that is simply not my recollection. Still, she offers a pretty glowing review. 

Meanwhile, the British press also chimed in, with the Telegraph placing Porgy and Bess within the context of Charleston history:

Charleston, South Carolina, is a beautiful place fraught with history, long past and all too recent. Once one of the richest cities in the British empire, it is also where the first shots of the American Civil War were fired.

Simmering tensions stretching right back to the slave trade have never quite evaporated, witness the mass shooting at the Emanuel African American Episcopal Church almost exactly a year ago. Feelings were thus running high in Charleston when Monday’s performance of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess was simulcast from the Gaillard Center into a public park near the church and dedicated to the memory of one of victims of that shooting, Ethel Lance, who had worked for many years at the performance venue...

The Telegraph also praised Green, but also had kind words for the performers:

To hear “Summertime” here is undeniably moving, especially when sung with such languid beauty as by Courtney Johnson. But the cast is strong all round. Lester Lynch’s dark baritone affords him complete possession of the role of Porgy, and the troubled Bess is radiantly portrayed by Alyson Cambridge. Victor Ryan Robertson is brilliantly slinky as Sporting Life. Under Stefan Asbury’s baton, the young players (America’s finest) of the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra find all the sophistication of Gershwin’s score. If the chorus-line blocking of the director David Herskovits is a little formulaic, this is still a momentous and triumphant homecoming for Porgy and Bess.
However, a review in the Financial Times of London left us scratching our heads.

First, it repeated a false claim made previously by Charleston's Post and Courier — namely, that the Gershwin estate blocked a Holy City Porgy production in the 1950s because the production would be before a segregated audience. The truth is the 1952 Charleston production was shut down by Dock Street Theatre because the black community objected to segregated seats and theater leaders didn't want to kowtow to what they saw as the African-American community's uppity demands. It's also worth noting that the cancelation of the show that was roundly supported by the News and Courier, the precursor to the P&C. An unidentified writer for the paper wrote, "In demanding that the audience be racially mingled, in disregard of South Carolina laws and customs, these Negroes in our opinion have not helped to promote good race relations. If upsetting these customs is the only terms on which they will participate, it is better that the project be abandoned." (Psst, you can find more N&C racist BS in Ellen Noonan's The Strange Career of Porgy & Bess.)

All of that aside, I was particularly surprised to find this befuddling passage in the Financial Times:
The production, driven by Jonathan Green’s designs, imagines a time when the opera’s close-knit but struggling black community has attained a measure of urban belonging, although Green avoids indices suggesting that time is today. A Georgian brick building and a wooden house with a second-storey porch show that Catfish Row has been gentrified, and later they take on designs of west African origin, a sure indication that the community has made the locale its own.
Gentrified? Huh? Perhaps the term means something different in the U.K. then it does here.

The writer also takes issue with Jonathan Green's overall vision.

Neither the designs’ bright colours nor Lenore Doxsee’s lighting do the drama about the match between the disabled beggar Porgy and the glamorous Bess any favours, but they don’t do it serious harm either. David Herskovits’s direction of principals and chorus, however, could use a stronger profile.
Together, both statements are clear examples that the Financial Times reviewer knows little about Charleston and even less about Spoleto's Porgy and Bess.

Check out these exhibitions for all things 'Porgy and Bess'

A continuing celebration

Posted by Connelly Hardaway on Wed, Jun 1, 2016 at 2:00 PM

Need more Porgy and Bess in your life? If you missed the two public simulcasts of the opera, and you didn't manage to snag tickets to the show during Spoleto, fear not. There are Porgy and Bess exhibits around town that take a closer look at the Charleston-based opera.

"Porgy and Crown, Superimposed," by Kara Walker. The image's description reads: "Porgy and Crown are the two men who vie for Bess's affection in 'Porgy and Bess.' By superimposing their profiles, Walker underscores Porgy and Crown's dramatic opposition throughout the opera." - CONNELLY HARDAWAY
  • Connelly Hardaway
  • "Porgy and Crown, Superimposed," by Kara Walker. The image's description reads: "Porgy and Crown are the two men who vie for Bess's affection in 'Porgy and Bess.' By superimposing their profiles, Walker underscores Porgy and Crown's dramatic opposition throughout the opera."

Last week we got a sneak peek of the Gibbes' reopening, along with its newest special exhibitions, The Things We Carry and Beyond Catfish Row: The Art of Porgy and Bess. Both exhibitions will be on display until Oct. 9, so you can soak in the history of Gershwin's famed opera long after Spoleto leaves town. Beyond Catfish Row features works by American realist George Biddle, American modernist Henry Botkin, and contemporary artists Kara Walker and Jonathan Green, who designed the set and costumes for Spoleto's version of Porgy and Bess.

The original libretto. - CONNELLY HARDAWAY
  • Connelly Hardaway
  • The original libretto.

We recommend checking out a curator-led tour of Beyond Catfish Row on June 9, starting at 2:30 p.m. Led by the curator of exhibitions, Pam Wall, this tour is included with the price of museum admission, $12 for adults and $6 for kids.

The Charleston Library Society hosts Porgy: Treasures From the Vault, an exhibition that includes the original handwritten manuscript and typescript of DuBose Heyward's first novel, Porgy. Other editions of Porgy are on display, as well as a program from the 1942 New York revival. And, according to CLS, Dubose Heyward may have written part of Porgy in the library's main room. The exhibition will be open until June 12.

CofC's Addlestone Library also has a Porgy and Bess exhibition currently on displayPorgy & Bess: A Charleston Story, featuring rare manuscripts and art. Check it out through August.

A model of the set of the 1970 and 1985 Charleston productions of “Porgy and Bess,” as designed by Emmett Robinson, on display now in Addlestone Library. - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • A model of the set of the 1970 and 1985 Charleston productions of “Porgy and Bess,” as designed by Emmett Robinson, on display now in Addlestone Library.

The exhibition is partially inspired by a new book, Porgy & Bess: A Charleston Story, and yesterday the library hosted a lecture and book signing about the newly published book. Written by Karen Chandler, Damon Fordham, Pam Wall (the Gibbes' aforementioned curator of exhibitions), and more, the book provides insight into both Gershwin's opera, as well as the city of Charleston itself. You can buy the book here. 

The Wells Gallery on Kiawah will feature paintings by Jonathan Green, Porgy and Bess' set and costume designer, through June 12. The gallery will feature original oil paintings by the Lowcountry artist, including the design for this year's Spoleto poster, "Harvest Gathering."

Jonathan Green's "Harvest Gathering" - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Jonathan Green's "Harvest Gathering"

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Cecile McLorin-Salvant lends her critically-acclaimed, Grammy-winning voice to Spoleto

In Tune

Posted by Vincent Harris on Wed, Jun 1, 2016 at 12:20 PM

McLorin-Salvant - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • McLorin-Salvant

Cecile McLorin-Salvant's voice is a stunning instrument. Impossibly clear, devastatingly powerful, almost casually virtuosic, with a range that can slide from wine-cellar low to skyscraper high, sometimes in the same breath. Her most recent album, 2015's For One To Love, is such a confident display of jazz talent that it's difficult to believe she's only 26 years old. Her interpretations of standards by Oscar Hammerstein, Bacharach, and David and Leonard Bernstein are alternately playful, menacing, and heartbreakingly sweet. It seems that she can slip into character as easily as one slips into clothing.

For One To Love would be amazing enough as a collection of covers, but McLorin-Salvant can write as well as she sings. The opening track, "Fog," is a remarkably atmospheric tune that seems to linger in the air like its namesake, haunting and eerie and blurred at the edges. It's this staggering level of talent that's led to an avalanche of critical acclaim, from the New York Times, The Guardian, and the Los Angeles Times, not to mention Down Beat magazine. McLorin-Salvant took home four awards from the venerable jazz publication in 2014, including Jazz Album of the Year (for her 2013 release Woman/Child), Female Vocalist, Rising Star–Jazz Artist, and Rising Star–Female Vocalist. And if that weren't enough proof of her talents, she won her first Grammy in 2016 for Best Jazz Vocal Album. With a potent combination of songwriting prowess, classical training and jazz instincts, it's incredible to think about how much further she can go.

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This week's concert music: from Beethoven to Lachenmann

What's Your Fantasy?

Posted by Connelly Hardaway on Wed, Jun 1, 2016 at 8:31 AM

Soprano Heather Buck - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Soprano Heather Buck

The second week of Spoleto sees a variety of both contemporary and classical music, starting with Wednesday's performance of Music in Time: Ancient Voices of Children. Soprano Heather Buck and pianist Stephen Drury, along with members of the Spoleto Festival USA orchestra, come together to perform George Crumb's Ancient Voices of Children. The program will also feature clarinet and spatial electronics, drawing from Pierre Boulez's Dialogue de l'ombre double, performed by Gleb Kanasevich.

Pianist Stephen Drury - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Pianist Stephen Drury

Next Tuesday sees two performances: Music in Time, Serynade with an Automated Sunrise, and Choral Fantasy. Serynade celebrates the pianist Helmut Lachenmann — the brains behind Little Match Girl's score — with a piano solo, performed by Drury. And the performance does indeed include a sunrise, closing with Oscar Bettison's small ensemble piece, An Automated Sunrise (for Joseph Cornell). Choral Fantasy, held in the Gaillard Center, is a triple threat performance, and by that we mean that the Charleston Symphony Orchestra chorus, Westminster Choir, and the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra will come together to present Beethoven's Mass in C Major and Choral Fantasy, along with Olivier's Messiaen's Couleurs de la Cite Celeste. In 1808 Beethoven performed Choral Fantasy, for the first time creating a piece that utilized the piano, chorus, and orchestra.

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