Ghosts of artists past bring Spoleto Festival USA 2018 to life 

Spirits Rising

click to enlarge Ranky Tanky

Reese Moore

Ranky Tanky

What do I see fast approaching in Spoleto Festival USA 2018? I see slick and stylized theatrical marvels designed to delight and to move. I see finely polished, emotionally powerful musical feats spanning the classical and the vanguard. I see dreamy, outré works of opera that are at once evocative and elusive. And throughout them all, I see dead people.

They are the ghosts of artists past, whose vision and voices animate the compositions, the choreography, and the narrative content that come together as the 42nd festival. During opening weekend alone, you can name check more than a few dearly departed who now are landing central roles across disciplines. Think Jerome Robbins, Dante, Marc Chagall.

Of course, it is by no means unusual or unnatural for artists to draw from work that predates their own. Humankind's stories, after all, have for centuries been told and retold and then told again — the spurned lover, the banishment to the wilderness, the dance with the devil. So derivation and reinterpretation are a matter of course. Either that or it's some sort of effete zombie apocalypse.

"People always say that you can't change the past, but, of course, you can," says the festival's general director Nigel Redden, noting that our interpretation of the past is done so through the limits of our contemporary lens.

With that in mind, let's train our eyes on Spoleto's opening weekend. For starters, there's a reboot of American choreographer Jerome Robbins by way of Miami City Ballet. The company, which has emerged as a classical ballet phenom of late, revisits his Celebration: The Art of The Pas de Deux on the occasion of Robbins's centenary. In doing so, the production also creates a dotted line from Spoleto Festival USA to the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, where the work debuted in 1973, gathering five couples from different countries to each have a go at the hallmark classical ballet duet, the pas de deux. Considering its international slant through today's vastly different global purview is sure to transfix.

click to enlarge Miami City Ballet - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Miami City Ballet

In opera offerings, Tree of Codes channels Polish scribe Bruno Schulz, whose 1930s short story collection The Street of Crocodiles is rendered operatic by Australian composer Liza Lim. Schulz's work resurfaces once removed, since Lim draws from writer Jonathan Safran Foer's redaction of it — both in title and text. Foer literally snipped words and letters from the original in a sort of narrative ransom note that mines the topic of erasure, particularly that brought about by the Holocaust.

While there is no musical erasure — or transformation of someone else's music — akin to Foer's literary technique in the composition, Lim weaves in extra-musical sound from electronics and nature with voices and musical instruments. "At times different layers rise to prominence, and what we might describe as traditional music, is connected to and 'heard through' a larger universe of musical sounds," says John Kennedy, the festival's resident conductor and director of orchestral activities.

"It's beautiful, but in a very different way, and a very contemporary way," says Redden. "There are these wonderful instruments that take on a life along with the life of the voices of the singers, so that you feel that the instruments are also a different set of characters."

click to enlarge Pia de Tolomei - IMAGINARIUM CREATIVE STUDIO PISA
  • Imaginarium Creative Studio Pisa
  • Pia de Tolomei

Under the direction of Ong Ken Sen, the set design finds inspiration in another (though very much alive) artist, British sculptor Rachel Whiteread. Her monoliths feature negative spaces, such as the Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial in Vienna, which makes a place for the works never realized by those persecuted.

Elsewhere in opera, the 14th-century, decidedly dead poet Dante pops up, by way of a brief interlude from his Purgatorio that involves an abused wife, Pia. Her cameo was fodder for Bartolomeo Sestini's 19th-century verse novella, on which Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti based Pia de' Tolomei. Now set in 1930s Europe, poor Pia continues to suffer the savagery of her husband Nello, who forces her from Siena, the city representing art, to a castle in the wilds of Maremma. "Siena made me, Maremma unmade me," she decries. "She was a woman of art," observes Redden. Without art, Dante and company assert, there is only wilderness.

And they keep coming. Heads-up for the high-flying late artist Marc Chagall, who rises again alongside his beloved wife Bella in Cornish theater company Kneehigh's winsome The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, bringing with him Jewish magical realism and probing, prescient questions about being Jewish in a fraught world. (Speaking of erasure, many Chagall monographs were burned and his works confiscated by the Nazis in the 1930s.)

And, in music, listen up for the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), the legendary 1960s group from Chicago's South Side, as revived by the excellent experimental jazz trio Artifacts. A glance at the festival program underscores Artifacts' intent with its call-out line, "Listening to the past; playing to the future."

The festival's coming days also include offerings that borrow from earlier practitioners, if not memorialize them. Jon Batiste, band leader of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, joins forces with the funk and soul revivalist band The Dap-Kings. Angels, an almost all-female gathering of Westminster choir members, takes on woman-powered works like the 13th-century Stabat Mater, which gives voice to Mary to recount the death of Jesus. It's but part of a concert informed directly by #MeToo, as confirmed by festival director of choral activities Joe Miller during a Spoleto Salon. Italy's Carlo Colla and Sons Marionette Company goes for the Grimm with The Pied Piper, while also gaining voice from Westminster Choir members in the classical-era comic opera Il matrimonio segreto.

click to enlarge "Il Matrimonio Segreto" - CARLO COLLA AND SONS MARIONETTE COMPANY
  • Carlo Colla and Sons Marionette Company
  • "Il Matrimonio Segreto"

But for those out there who opt to live in the present, there are plenty of rugged artistic souls with feet firmly planted here. Henry Naylor's Borders offers a two-hander set on the Syrian border — bringing back the riveting actor Avital Lvova, star of last year's Angel by the same playwright. ("I think it's a must-see," says Redden. "It's an issue of what it means to cross the border.") On a lighter note, physically and otherwise, the 10-strong, humor-inflected Australian acrobatic theater company Gravity & Other Myths propels upward. Also, the festival's Music In Time series presents An Elemental Thing to explore new music that captures the human condition in the here and the now.

There's more on the way, too. Charleston's own chart-busting Ranky Tanky reinvigorates the Gullah spirituals of Sea Island African slave descendants. In You Are Mine Own, director Atom Egoyan serves up a multi-media event with the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra that breathes new life into the love poetry of Tagore. (And, yes, there are also plenty of pieces in the present afoot, particularly by way of dance companies like Dorrance Dance and A.I.M).

After all, nothing navigates the eternal and the ephemeral like live performance. A work of art, like a sculpture or a book, may make it through millennia in tact, but a live performance exists in the moment. At the risk of getting all Matrix, this time-hopping mash-up adds other dimensions to the artistic process, as we root around in the past to define our present. But, as Redden points out, however fleeting they may be, live performances often trump other forms of art by virtue of the way in which we experience them.

"It is a temporal act in that you spend an hour or two hours or three hours, or whatever it is," says Redden. "On some level, a performance focuses the mind, because it creates a time when the artist can take you on a journey in a way that I think is very different."

But back to the past. Some artists today have stated they simply aren't up for staring into the future right now, given the current state of affairs. Perhaps they are drawn to nostalgia, dusting off Jewish magical realism by way of Chagall — or recalling the good old days when Robbins introduced an altogether American choreography bursting with hope and exuberance, while also underscoring the complexities of our national experience. (Think West Side Story, with performers stomping ecstatic to the line, "I like to be in America.") Maybe contemporary artists are simply keen to gain crucial context to today's unsettling times by revisiting similarly chilling circumstances of yesteryear, in particular the Holocaust.

Redden notes that the arts are almost antithetical to the kind of anonymous hatred that social media has fostered. "Clearly it has unleashed demons that we thought had all disappeared," he says of today's world. "In terms of artists, I think so many want to bring people together." And if the 2018 festival is any indication, they are willing to raise the dead to do so.

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