A Strong Start for Spoleto 2014 

Questions posed, answers sought — that's what it's all about

El Niño's depiction of the Virgin conception is an  unexpectedly erotic take on the subject

Chelsea Haines

El Niño's depiction of the Virgin conception is an unexpectedly erotic take on the subject

We're only a few days into Spoleto season and already I've amassed a collection of notes scribbled on the backs of my ticket stubs, things I want to follow up on after the festival wraps up. Also (briefly) in my collection: a balloon animal. More on that later.

As an example of my follow-ups, there's this: Get to know Shepard Fairey's work better. After the ridiculously well-attended opening of the Halsey's 30th anniversary show, The Insistent Image: Recurring Motifs in the Art of Shepard Fairey and Jasper Johns, I realized how shallow my knowledge of Fairey's work really is. The pieces on display in the gallery, as well as the installations Fairey has strewn about town like eye-candy for the masses, blasted past the boundaries I had neatly constructed for this artist's reach and ambition. His half of the Halsey exhibition is all new work, specifically created for the exhibit. That, in itself, is impressive enough. More importantly, the quality of that work speaks for itself. And it speaks, very pointedly so, to a broad audience. It's easy to categorize it with that almost dismissive term "accessible." Forget that. Instead, try "haunting" or better still "defining," as in "defining a generation's hopes, dreams, early disappointments." Fairey's iconic works stand alone, but in this exhibition, thematically linked, placed in physically close rapport with one another, you begin to see depth, nuances, and technique, all let loose upon the world in its creator's roguishly articulate blunt-force style. Red and black predominate, yes, but there are smatterings of gold, possibly a hint of brighter outcomes in the making. These are thematic threads in the work that invite closer investigation. Pair this with Jasper Johns' work (much more subdued, almost anthropological in comparison) and the exhibition prompts questions about generational obsessions and the grammar each generation has chosen for their most emphatic beliefs.

Following on with that scrutiny of beliefs, I found myself momentarily torn by the opera El Niño. On one level, the Spoleto notes on the work tell us "[Composer and co-librettist] Adams looks beyond the literal description of events relating to the nativity, toward what they might represent today." Describing the widely variant source material for the libretto, we are told, "Its texts examine both the original story and our relationship to it." On the other level, there's how the opera is staged. This is where the confounding element presented itself to me.

There's a long (and mostly benign) coziness between the sacred and the profane in Western culture. We tend to forget that, playing up ideal, cloistered consistency wherever we can and stomping out grey areas as quickly as possible. This production of El Niño does not appear willing to put aside the grey palette so off-handedly. And where it paints grey most fervently is in the scene where Mary is playing out the Virgin conception.

Spotlighted on a metal frame hospital ward bed, fully-clothed Mary lies on her back, knees apart, writhing suggestively beneath crisp white sheets. For me, the entire depiction drew less on the sanitized, G-rated, version of the New Testament story I grew up with and much more on the Greek "Leda and the Swan," that much earlier tale of gods and humans interacting in this way. El Niño's depiction struck me as emphasizing seduction and eroticism, themes most modern belief systems no longer customarily invite alongside their religious teachings. A glancing survey of religious art through history, or indeed a visit to any European cathedral dating up to and including the Renaissance era, reveals that this banishment of the erotic in religion is, at best, a fairly recent consensus. The fact that El Niño's creators were willing to confront their audience with this anomaly was, at first, vaguely disturbing but on consideration, a welcome historical refresher. I am grateful to the production's courage for taking me out of some lazy, haphazard patterns of thought and helping me create some revised circuits.

In a much lighter context, there is the sheer delight of play at this year's festival. This is where that balloon animal comes in. It was an impromptu gift, given to me by a cast member of Gravity & Other Myth's brilliant A Simple Space. No one in the cast or crew had any idea I was also attending the show to review it, so I was able to put aside any guilt about graft almost immediately. (Full disclosure: at the end of the show, I passed the gift along to the daughters of some friends also in attendance that afternoon. The young ladies were delighted to take over its care.)

A Simple Space is the one show thus far into the festival that's earned that most coveted prize: unsolicited recommendation by random strangers. Thumbing through the Spoleto program in a seat next to mine at some other show, strangers have commented that I'd better get a ticket for it right away. "You don't want to miss this one!" has been the most common advice.

The fact that these are adults saying this and that their eyes gleam with the memory of the show when they say it, can only make A Simple Space's triumph that much more complete. In consideration of this phenomenon, on my list of notes I've added, "There must be a way to get Gravity & Other Myths an artist's residency in Charleston. Even just a few weeks!" More ambitiously, "How about a Cirque de Soleil-style permanent show?"

Another brush with greatness was in the company of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. Very keenly, we mourn the (temporary) loss of the Galliard in this context. As has been noted previously in these pages, seating at the TD Arena is not especially conducive to the kind of rapt attention this program from Hubbard Street deserves. Fortunately, the works themselves are so compelling as to lift the spirit away from its physical discomfort and leave you gasping at the beauty, artistry, and commanding presence of what's unfolding before you.

Hubbard Street brought Nacho Duato's Gnawa back to Spoleto this year. It remains as stunning as it was in its first Spoleto appearance. While William Forsythe's Quintett was a bit of a reach and something I never quite got hold of (entirely owing, I confess, to the stultifying effect of "Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet" playing over it in a 22-second loop), the two remaining works on the program more than made up for that fleeting musical agony.

I can't say enough about Jirˇí Kylián's Falling Angels. If you've ever been struck mute by an experience so powerful it overwhelms you, that is what I'd be saying if I could. I'd be saying that you should make an effort to see this work, even if you think you don't like dance, much less modern dance. With the simplest of settings — artful lighting effects, a bare stage — distraction is withdrawn to a pinpoint and the focus is entirely on the female dancers and the choreography. The richest aspect of this work is how completely and unequivocally it achieves a narrative. But the story here is more like poetry than straight storytelling. It's not an exaggeration to say Falling Angels is nearly harrowing in how beautifully it gets to you, how inspirational the cumulative effect of creating so many emotional responses in the audience can be. This one will stay with me and become a new benchmark for what art can achieve. Seriously.

And just before that work, there's PACOPEPEPLUTO. Almost instantly, I began laughing to myself as the oh-so-familiar opening of Dean Martin's "That's Amore" came over the sound system — Dean, I never expected to find you here. Performed as solos by three male dancers, this is one of the most impressively athletic and funniest dance works I've ever seen.

On Sunday night, we had an absolute blast listening to Brazilian mandolinist Danilo Brito and his quartet. That is one bet that paid off handsomely for anyone who follows the Jazz Series and will attend every show on offer, simply based on felicitous past experience.

There's a good deal I'm looking forward to in the remainder of the week. I hear My Cousin Rachel calling my name all the way from the Dock Street Theatre. René Marie at TD Arena beckons, too. (Of course, given the Eartha Kitt vibe surrounding Ms. Marie, that invitation sounds more like a purr.) More music on the list: pianist Gwilym Simcock, the inimitable Kat Edmonson, the Aca Seca Trio from way down south in Argentina. I'm particularly keen to see the very intriguing Facing Goya. Dance companies Keigwin & Company and Dorrance Dance, along with the play A Brimful of Asha and opera Kát'a Kabanová round out the week very nicely.

Remember to keep up to date with our Spoleto coverage online at our blog, SpoletoBuzz. See you there.

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