In the wake of an awe-inspiring 40th Spoleto Festival USA — and in a world utterly changed in the year since many of us trawled Craigslist in hopes of rogue Porgy and Bess tickets — here we are at the first official rumblings of Spoleto Festival USA 2017. Mind you, coaxing overarching themes from the festival folks is a bit of a culture writer’s folly. Recurring motifs, however, do tend to gamely present themselves, and what I’m spotting at first glance is heartening.
For one, this year’s lineup is powered by so many phenomenal female directors, choreographers, performers, and thinkers that an apt slogan could be “I’m With Her.” Other through lines percolate up as well — like economy of vision, with more than a few spare sets and contained casts, as well as examinations of cultural conflict. However, with 160 ticketed events at 12 venues, the Spoleto-coined “judicious mix” of 2017 remains an ever vibrant, often wrenching Rorschach test — one through which we can glean what we need from the global community of artists who for three mind-blowing weeks (May 26-June 11) land right in our backyard.
Make way for Russians by way of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Directed by two-time Spoleto vet Chen Shi-Zheng (Matsukaze, 2013; Monkey: Journey to the West in 2008), Spoleto’s “capstone” opera has charismatic conductor Evan Rogister leading the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra with soprano Natalia Pavlova in the role of Tatyana. Though little intel is presently available about the set design, hints of a birch tree-lined, Slavic wintry mix are a reasonable bet. In a nod to the female lead, Spoleto has also dreamed up a $385 black-tie gala nod to its central femme, “Tatyana’s Ball.”
It all comes down to a woman in Vivaldi’s Farnace, which entails a wife and mother debating the ultimate sacrifice. Holding forth at the Dock Street Theater, this is the US premiere of a production directed by the formidable Garry Hynes (Kát'a Kabanová, 2014; The Cripple of Inishmaan, 2011), the first female director to win a Tony Award.
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"Quartett" has its US premiere at Spoleto USA.
Quartett Quartett breathes music into German dramatist Heiner Müller’s 1982 play, the US premiere of a Royal Opera House import. Directed by John Fulljames and featuring Italian composer Luca Francesconi’s score for two singers and two orchestras — one live and one pre-recorded — it will be conducted by Spoleto USA’s own John Kennedy.
Waiting for Godot
Serial Spoletian Garry Hynes gives resounding new proof to women’s status as superior multi-taskers. She juggles another show at the Dock Street during her downtime from Farnace: The Druid’s acclaimed, rural-flavored rendition of Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett’s modern masterpiece starring Garrett Lombard, Aaron Monaghan, Rory Nolan and Marty Rea.
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"Waiting for Godot" is Samuel Beckett's modern masterpiece.
Also returning is Mark Down, co-director of the 2016 The Little Match Girl, mounting Blind Summit Theatre’s The Table. The one-puppet-show and Edinburgh Fringe Festival favorite involves three puppeteers manipulating a roughly three-foot-tall, curmudgeonly cardboard creation, Moses, as he waxes philosophic and comedic about religion and mortality.
The French mother-daughter team of dancer/circus artist Aurélia Thierrée (Aurélia’s Oratorio, 2007) and Victoria Thierrée Chaplin (daughter of Charlie Chaplin) brings Murmurs, a near-wordless odyssey with innovative set design, objects and puppetry to transform everyday things into manifestations of the soul.
British playwright Henry Naylor joins the fierce female fray with his one-woman monologue Angel, an Adelaide and Edinburgh Fringe hit based more or less on a true story of a Kurdish female sniper in the face of ISIS forces in Northern Syria.
Invoking Soviet-era Russia is Ramona, featuring puppetry from Georgian writer and director Rezo Gabriadze, in his second Spoleto run (The Battle of Stalingrad, 2003). This tragi-charming love story of two Russian railway trains illuminates how the extraordinary can emerge from the ordinary.
Il n’est pas encore minuit
In physical theater, the French circus troupe Compagnie XY returns (Le Grand C, 2013) with Il n’est pas encore minuit, which homes in on how humanity grapples with instability and imbalance. Heads up for stacked bodies, precision acrobatics, and plenty of gasp-worthy feats.
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Yo, Carmen features María Pagés.
Gaga: OCD Love, We Love Arabs, and W H A L E
The transfixing, Israeli-born dance technique Gaga — or arguably anti-technique — gets major play by way of three distinct companies, all of whose roots trace to Ohad Naharin and Batsheva Dance Company. Known for its mesmerizing mash-up of the beautiful and the unsightly, Gaga comprises both invented words and movement. First up is OCD Love, a work from Israeli choreographers Sharon Eyal (former Batsheva dancer) and Gai Behar with an ensemble moving to the live techno stylings of DJ Ori Lichtik to look at love and obsessive compulsion.
From there, Israeli performer/choreographer Hillel Kogan, another former Naharin disciple and dancer, presents We Love Arabs, his take on the Arab-Israeli conflict, performed with Adi Boutrous, and entangling them in the symbols and stuff of clashing cultures.
Rounding out the Gagathon is W H A L E, a full-length exploration of love by Andrea Miller with her New York-based Gallim Dance. Another former Batsheva dancer, this Spoleto veteran (I Can See Myself in Your Pupil, 2010) mixes the erotic with the frenetic — with dance club rhythm, strobe lights and full frontal nudity. Yo, Carmen
I am woman, hear me stomp. Who better than to celebrate full-on femininity than María Pagés, the Madrid-based flamenco artist who first riveted Spoleto USA audiences in 2003? She now takes the Gaillard stage with a Carmen that promises to be spirited and captivating. Monchichi Monchichi is an extended duet with ballet and martial arts-trained Honji Wang and former B-boy Sébastien Ramirez. Informed by both artists’ cross-cultural backgrounds (Ramirez is French with Spanish origins and Wang was born in Frankfurt to Korean parents), the work forges a new language for this generation that is both far-reaching and forever moving fast around the globe. Ayodele Casel
This world premiere from New York tap choreographer and performer Ayodele Casel mines language, identity and legacy. The tap-savvy protégée of Savion Glover was the only female dancer in his Not Your Ordinary Tappers, which puts her squarely on our list of the breakthrough women making a significant splash in the 2017 talent pool.
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Spoleto Celebration Concert
The Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra, the Westminster Choir, and musicians from the Bank of America Chamber music series come together under conductor Anne Manson for a varied program on May 30 including works of Charleston composer Edmund Thornton Jenkins, and works by Joseph “Fud” Livingston, an early jazz musician born in Charleston in 1906.
Mozart’s Great Mass
Mozart’s in the Gaillard on June 6, when the Westminster Choir, the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus, and the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra combine forces in a choral extravaganza led by Joe Miller, Spoleto’s festival director of choral activities.
Westminster Choir Concerts
Miller will also conduct the perennially popular Westminster Choir Concerts at the Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul. A Thousand Years to Live spotlights works by American composers Dominick DiOrio, Kile Smith, and Paul Crabtree, along with Brahms’s Three Songs, op. 42 for a cappella choir, among others.
Gustav Mahler’s Symphony no. 4
Festival conductor John Kennedy will lead the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra in Mahler’s setting of the poem “Das himmlische Leben” (The Heavenly Life), performed by soprano Pureum Jo.
Under the direction of violinist Geoff Nuttall, the series inhabits the Dock Street Theatre for 33 concerts of 11 programs, with returning Spoleto artists including countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo; percussionist Steven Schick; oboist James Austin Smith, violinist Livia Sohn, and pianists Pedja Muzijevic and Stephen Prutsman; as well as Festival newbies including composer-in-residence Jaroslaw Kapuscinski, composer/cellist Joshua Roman, pianist Gilles Vonsattel, and the Canadian ensemble Rolston String Quartet, as well as Nuttall’s St. Lawrence String Quartet.
Nashville-based and Grammy-nominated string band Della Mae fills College of Charleston Cistern Yard with strains of bluegrass accentuated by Celia Woodsmith’s vocals.
The former frontwoman for the Carolina Chocolate Drops (2010, 2008) takes to the Gaillard stage for an evening of American roots music.
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New Orleans gets big love this year at the Jazz Series, beginning with NOLA’s scat-happy, Grammy winner Dee Dee Bridgewater at Cistern Yard. There’s also Buenos Aires-born Sofía Rei, who merges South American folklore, jazz, flamenco and electronica in six unique shows, and the Cuban Pedrito Martinez Group. In a groove-based quintent led by New Orleans trumpeter Terence Blanchard, he performs with the E-Collective. Butler, Bernstein & The Hot 9 is the partnership of NOLA pianist and singer Henry Butler with New York City trumpeter, bandleader, and arranger Steven Bernstein. Also on the roster is the Charles Lloyd Quartet concert with saxophonist and flutist Charles Lloyd and Evan Christopher’s Clarinet Road.
And, of course, don’t forget the Finale at Middleton Place, which this year features The Revivalists. Tickets go on sale to the general public on Wed. Jan. 18, at 10 a.m. online at spoletousa.org and by phone at (843) 579-3100.