Call me macabre, but I'm glad to see death's grinning face in this year's festival 

Gloom and Doom

click to enlarge The opera Paradise Interrupted grows an on-stage dream garden from out of nowhere


The opera Paradise Interrupted grows an on-stage dream garden from out of nowhere

Well, here we are again. It's springtime in Charleston, and that means Spoleto is here: that grand celebration of the performing arts that breathes new life into our cultural sphere, our streets, and certainly our economy. Downtown, pedestrians' steps are bouncier, the stores and restaurants are busier, and the populace as a whole seems sweatier (those poor tourists).

But that's just looking at the festival from the outside. Inside the theaters this year, I (and all the rest of you eager ticketholders) will be confronting death, decay, dissolution — and boy, am I excited.

Now, the specter of death is hardly a stranger to great art and the great artists who create it. I would go so far as to say he's a welcome, almost necessary guest at the artist's table, for what is art if not a skillful, subliminal meditation on the beauty of life and the inevitability of its end? Death and life, together again, forever? This is how it's always been — the cave woman who pressed her palm into pigment, then made her handprint on the rock wall was giving proof of her life, and therefore, whether she was conscious of it or not, proof of her coming death. Still lifes, with their ordinary fruit and flowers, move us only when we can sense the passage of time — the slightly wilted petals. The subtly bruised fruit. From the ancient Greeks and Shakespeare to Dickinson and Picasso, all the way through to Faulkner and Forster, Arthur Miller and even Andy Warhol — every one of them, deep in their creative hearts, was on speaking terms with the Big Ending.

So it would be strange, indeed, if an arts festival like Spoleto didn't end up having more to do with death than the program directors probably ever intend. (In fact, the CP's Spoleto 2013 Overview Critic, Jeffrey Day, remarked on that year's festival's deathly tone in its first week). It's unmistakable, overt, with some of this year's performances — Romeo and Juliet, for example — and more subtle in others, like Carlo Colla & Sons' marionette Sleeping Beauty. In the story, Sleeping Beauty goes through a symbolic death and rebirth, while in the theater, Colla's puppeteers give fleeting life to the company's exquisite marionettes. The puppets die, in a sense, at the end of each performance.

But there's a more nuanced, more interesting aspect of death that is also distinctly present this year: decay. And the performance that most embodies that, to me, is the Scottish Ballet's A Streetcar Named Desire, a story that must be the second-most beautiful ode to and lament for decayed beauty in American literature (the first being The Glass Menagerie, also by Tennessee Williams). Before reading Kelly Rae Smith's preview of the show (on p. 40), I wondered how much I would miss the dialogue — I once saw a short ballet interpretation of Streetcar that was good, but mostly just made me wish I was watching the play. But Eve Mutso, who dances as Blanche in the ballet, seems to have a deep understanding of and commitment to her character, and the company is clearly embracing the entirety of this gut-wrenching story, rather than picking and choosing bits to ignore. Plus, it's gotten excellent reviews in the UK.

The Scottish Ballet's A Streetcar Named Desire is a lament for decayed beauty - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • The Scottish Ballet's A Streetcar Named Desire is a lament for decayed beauty

Also on the dance program is a performance by the Trisha Brown Dance Company, which has been fighting against a type of decay particular to arts organizations with indelible ties to their founders. Brown had to give up her role as director a few years ago due to health issues, and so the company is left to figure out what to do next: do the new leaders begin choreographing completely new dances? Do they turn into a preservation and education organization? Or do they eventually close up shop? For now, at least, they're just focusing on dancing — the company is currently on a three-year tour performing iconic pieces from Brown's repertoire, which is what they'll do here.

Though I'm an ardent lover of the performing arts in general, theater is my preferred genre — I grew up seeing theater performances regularly and often, everything from local community theater to huge productions on Broadway and in London's West End (thank you for that, Mom and Dad). I enjoy traditional musicals, avant-garde theater, and everything in between — but there's something extremely satisfying about seeing straight drama, where people just talk to each other. It's like a palate-cleanser, and never more so than during Spoleto, when there are plenty of pieces to take in that are weird or challenging (as there should be). Sometimes I like knowing what to expect.

Now, When It Rains, a production by Canada's 2b Theatre, doesn't quite fit that. It's billed as a live-action graphic novel, and has these cool shadow-animation type effects

similar to ones that the English theater company 1927 used in their Spoleto 2012 show The Animals and Children Took to the Streets — but still, at bottom, it's a play. We hear from CP editor Chris Haire, who's writing about it for next week's issue, that it's about death of all kinds — of a spouse, a child, relationships, and more. Yeesh. I hope that the "dark humor" that's apparently part of it is funny enough to offset the tragedy. But even if it's not, I expect great things — Canadian theater has had great success at Spoleto (last year's A Brimful of Asha, 2012's Canadian-influenced LEO), and from what I've learned talking to performers who have worked there over the years, Canada's theater scene is quite supportive and creatively liberated.

And what would all this talk of decay be without a mention of one of the two films showing at Spoleto this year, Decasia? This 2002 experimental film, which was created with footage obtained from the University of South Carolina's Moving Image Research Collection, is quite literally about decay: the decay of silent films, specifically. The film has been heralded as a masterpiece by film critics and, also, the U.S. Library of Congress, which declared it part of the Library's National Film Registry — it's the only 21st century film included (so far, at least).

Decasia is an experimental look at the decay of silent films - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Decasia is an experimental look at the decay of silent films

On the flipside of that, the other film being shown this year, Charlie Chaplin's City Lights, is a silent film that's in anything but a state of decay. Eighty-four years after its production, City Lights is still as funny as it ever was. I can't wait to see it with the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra performing the soundtrack live.

But enough of all this grim talk. There's something else I've been taken with in this year's lineup, and that's the strong presence of a visual arts crossover. Let's start with the operas: Paradise Interrupted, which promises to be a truly unique work, was created by visual artist Jennifer Wen Ma. Ma is an ambitious and fascinating artist (you can read more about her in my preview of the show on p. TK) who came up with the central visual, an on-stage garden that grows out of nothing, for this performance before either the music or story were conceived. There's no doubt that Paradise Interrupted will be visually striking, or that it will be sung to perfection, as the main character is portrayed by the Chinese operatic superstar Qian Yi. My only question is whether, as a whole, the piece will succeed in transforming its rather esoteric premise — a woman wanders through a dream garden in search of an unattainable ideal — into something that moves the audience.

On a far earthier level, we have the 17th century Cavalli opera Veremonda, l'Amazzone di Aragona. Jealousy, deceit, love, mistaken identities — that's the kind of timeless stuff that anyone can get into. If you've seen the colorful poster by Italian artist Ugo Nespolo for this year's festival, you know a little bit about what to expect from this opera, visually, at least. Nespolo designed all the scenery for Veremonda, which will give the show a vibrant Mediterranean look. The most interesting thing about the show, however, is not its scenery but its history — you can read about this long-forgotten opera on p. TK.

Then there's Shen Wei Dance Arts, a dance company led by Chinese-American choreographer and visual artist Shen Wei. Their Spoleto performance consists of only two dances, Map and Untitled #12-1, and it's the second one that intrigues me. Untitled #12-1 was originally a site-specific piece created for the 2014 Art Basel art festival in Miami. It was performed in the MDC Museum of Art + Design, where it accompanied a solo show of Wei's paintings. Wei has since translated it into a stage performance that incorporates his paintings — abstract, black, white, and gray compositions.

Finally, Romeo and Juliet. I have to mention this show, even though it doesn't really have anything to do with visual arts (although it does, as mentioned earlier, have plenty to do with death) because it's one of the performances I am most excited about seeing. This is a Shakespeare's Globe production, and they are, as you'd expect from the name, one of the world's very best Shakespeare companies. Their home in London is a meticulous reproduction of the original Globe, located just a few hundred yards from the original site — I was lucky enough to see two productions there when I was 15, and I'll never forget them, especially seeing Vanessa Redgrave, whom I knew nothing about at the time, as Prospero in The Tempest. Not to sound high-flying or anything, but she was transcendent. There's just no other word I can use.

And so aside from my love of Romeo and Juliet itself — it's just so darn romantic — the caliber of the Globe is also pushing this show to the top of my must-see list (although, as overview critic, I must see almost everything ... but you know what I mean).

So that's where I stand going into this festival. And though I did in this essay, I won't neglect the music, because we all know Spoleto almost always has an outstanding musical lineup. In fact, Musica Nuda, the Italian voice and double bass duo, will be my very first Spoleto performance this year. More on that later — I promise.


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