This year's Spoleto Festival is temporally obsessed 

Keeping Time

click to enlarge 'The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk'

Provided

'The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk'

In the first days of Spoleto Festival USA 2018, artists everywhere are minding the time. They rue how it slips through their fingers. They chase it dancing from past to present and back to the past. They pine for earlier eras, adding poignant, plaintive context to the here and the now. And they reanimate artists whose time on earth may have ended, but their relevance and resonance endure.

In two programs presented by Miami City Ballet, nostalgia was afoot. The company time travels with such mastery of movement and feeling that only a stone cold killer couldn't leave a production both vitalized and verklempt. First up was Celebration: The Art of the Pas de Deux, a sublime, soulful centennial tribute to Jerome Robbins that wholly conjured the choreographer. Interspersing archival interviews and onstage comments from artistic director Lourdes Lopez, the program featured three iconic works created for the balletic twofer called the pas de deux. These included "Afternoon of a Faun" (1953), "Other Dances" (1976), and "In the Night" (1970).

In the company's other program, time also marched on — and leaped, arched, even reclined, throughout four works representing this century's choreographic heavy hitters. Balanchine's fleet footed Walpurgisnacht Ballet from 1980 set the stage with verve and polished rigor, as the dancers literally, passionately let down their hair. Sir Kenneth MacMillan's 1994 Carousel Pas de Deux infused the American-made sentimentality of Richard Rodgers' 1945 Carousel score in songs like "My Boy Bill" and "If I Loved You."

The hands-down crowd-pleaser of the program, Alexei Ratmansky's 2008 Concerto DSCH, set to Shostakovich, featured a retro swimsuit-clad corps bobbing and rolling and undulating wave-like. And rounding up the program was Justin Peck's 2015 sultry, white-hot Heatscape. Set to music by Bohuslav Martinu, dancers in casual white come together, arching forward then pulling back, reaching skyward to then rest on the floor, all against an ornately illustrated glowing red sun of a background — rendered local as it was the work of Charleston native Shepard Fairey.

click to enlarge 'Borders' - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • 'Borders'

From there, I headed to Henry Naylor's high-octane Borders, the harrowing two-hander that charts two artists to the Syrian border: Sebastian (Graham O'Mara), a British war photographer-turned-celeb-portraitist who has gone from taking a famed snap of Osama bin Laden to selling out hard, and Nameless (Avital Lvova), a young Syrian female graffiti artist who will let nothing stand in her way of tagging injustice. Meted out in a timeline of events like 9/11 and the capture of bin Laden, the years advanced to a watery oblivion, while the play shines glaring light on artistic conviction, as well as the many on the borders, who have slipped away, forgotten.

With similar reverence and plenty of welcome whimsy, Kneehigh's fetching, heartfelt The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk charmed Dock Street Theatre patrons clear out of their seats. Through both word and song, it vibrantly animated the love affair between the fantastical Marc and Bella Chagall, which was famously immortalized in the artist's paintings. The work was framed within the context of their Belarusian city of Vitebsk, which fell to ruin during the Nazi occupation. Nods to the artist's work punctuated the homespun-feeling set — such as his blue winged clock. Here, it is Bella, a writer whose voice remains submerged during her life, who minds the time, noting its ticking and ticking away, while Marc strives "to create something precious and fleeting for eternity," and ultimately endeavors to remember by way of his art, through which he can almost feel the weight of her hair on his arm.

click to enlarge 'Pia de' Tolomei' - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • 'Pia de' Tolomei'

An artistic rendering also takes center stage in a proficient, yet somewhat fangless production of Donizetti's Pia de' Tolomei, by way of a 19th-century portrait of the title character that is repeatedly revealed and obscured. When it comes to time, poor Pia (Amanda Woodbury) comes to find that hers is running out, thanks to a misunderstanding that escalates to a death sentence decreed by her very husband, Nello (Valdis Jansons). Set in 1930s Italy during the rise of Fascism, the set comprises front scrims occasionally cloaking the action with gray bricks, rain, clouds, and finally that art, behind which is a concrete gray grid and box that rolls left or right as scenes warrant it. Banished by Nello from artistic Siena to the wilds of Maremma, Pia can only hope that she will be remembered after death.

And, elsewhere in opera, Liza Lim's eerie, inscrutable Tree of Codes exists "beyond the margin of time," displacing it entirely from linear narrative so that its performers, mainly the magnificent Marisol Montalvo and Elliot Madore, are left to bewail its passage, singing "time, time, time." This is amidst similarly elegiac extra-musical sounds hailing from the natural world — and against the backdrop of an outsize white monolith representing the lives erased by the Holocaust. My advice on this one would be to suspend your own notions of story progression as you settle into your seat, based as it is on Jonathan Safran Foer's redaction of Bruno Schulz's novel. Strap in for singular journey that is at once dreamlike and tortured. You may find, like I did, that it will permeate your psyche in strange, new ways.

click to enlarge Jon Batiste - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Jon Batiste

I chased that on Saturday night with a gloriously galvanizing time in Cistern Yard, compliments of Jon Batiste and the Dap-Kings, who together tuned up times gone by through gentler, more hopeful eyes. Striking out optimistically with a funky, friendly take on "Yes We Can, Can" by the great, departed Allen Toussaint, the astoundingly accomplished Batiste revved up with the lyrics "Now is the time for all good men to get together with one another." That set the tone for the show, reviving other encouraging numbers like the soulful "Light Shines Brightest In the Dark" and Ray Charles' "Hallelujah I Love Her So," as well as Batiste's original work, such as the delightful, defiant "It's Alright (Why You Gotta)" from his Social Music album.

The program summoned spirits too, as the band's vocalist dedicated "Give Me Some Time" to the Dap-Kings' late leader, Sharon Jones, with the performer's grief surfacing visibly as the song culminated. This was met a few silent seconds before the next number, which I then realized was instituted by Batiste, who quietly, kindly waited for her to gather herself, creating a subtle moment of humanity that spoke volumes about giving proper space to pay respects both to artists no longer with — and to those who mourn them.

Earlier, at The Pied Piper, the time-tested Carlo Colla and Sons Marionette Company took its sweet, magical time unfolding the story of Hamelin, a town that had banished its pets and its poet to make way for bigger buildings and more prosperity (ahem, Charlestonians). That mandate, it turns out, is just the sort of bad business that attracts a bunch of rats — and the likes of the Pied Piper, who has a way of teaching hard lessons to people and places who may have forgotten the blessings of being serene.

As I turn my sights to the very near future, there's more temporal backstepping on the way. There's Artifacts, which promises to revisit vanguard Chicago jazz artists; there's You Are Mine Own's orchestration of Tagore poems; there's Ranky Tanky's new spin on Gullah spirituals and more; and there's The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, which drags up the devil himself, but thankfully passes around the bourbon while doing so. So little time, so many artists, both those walking among us and those flying into Charleston from parts unknown.

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