Week one digs deep with roots, rage, and body parts 

Identity Politics

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Leigh Webber

From gut-wrenching opera to quirk-inflected folk-tales, the roots run exhilaratingly and, at times, perilously deep on opening weekend of Spoleto Festival USA. Work after work traces, untangles, unearths, or dignifies the ways in which our identities are bound to those of our forebears — often for the better, and, when things go awry as they do for us mortals, woefully for the worse.

No offering exemplifies roots run amok in quite the way of Salome, the 1905 Richard Strauss opera based on Oscar Wilde's play, now under the fearless, fearsome direction of Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser. A tulle-draped woman on the verge of a monstrous takedown, Salome is the daughter of Queen Herodias, and as such swans around the posh, modern court of her stepfather King Herod, toying with the lovelorn Narraboth and generally getting her way — that is, until she doesn't.

Come to find out, it is Salome's very birthright that repels the object of her desire, the pious Jokanaan (a.k.a. John the Baptist), who is portrayed with equal parts soul and censure by the heart-warming, magnetic bass baritone Erik Van Heyningen, who refuses Salome's overt sexual advances (those that may in part account for the festival email warning of explicit content). Instead, Jokanaan damns her, hurling slurs such as "daughter of adultery" and "daughter of Sodom."

As Salome, the phenomenally hellbent dramatic soprano Melanie Henley Heyn brings on the toxic, tragic brew of entitlement, desire, and humiliation that ultimately erupts in a white-hot rage against Jokanaan. She thus unleashes all the fury percolating from years of being on the receiving end of the unwelcome lasciviousness her stepfather/uncle Herod.

Herod, as portrayed with chilling mastery by tenor Paul Groves, is a sleek-suited alpha male who reads like a self-satisfied titan of industry, tossing out a lethal command as if he were ordering a martini, his unapologetic appetites bringing to mind certain movie moguls known for ensnaring starlets.

And, cue up the festival email warning: The altogether raw and randy dance of the seven veils that Salome performs for (and with) Herod exposes their fraught carnal contract, the likes of which is rearing its own ugly head in many a news story these days. (Immediately after the scene, I spotted three walkouts, and could not help but observe that they were all male patrons.)

To be sure, it's far from savory stuff, rendered more disturbing by its timeliness — as well as by the on-stage presence of Salome's sparkle-suited, wine-numbed mother, stumbling sick on stage while bearing witness. But the stakes should be this squeamishly high for Salome to go the distance, and this directorial choice delivered the full force of an operatic experience, with its singular means of opening the valves on the dense and confounding muck surging through the human heart.

With outsize emotional and vocal range, Heyn powers through to the oh-so-bitter end, demonstrating (and apologies in advance for this one) that Salome is a woman who will do whatever it takes it get a head. In the reckoning scene involving the famed silver platter, Herod lingers nearby, casting a coldly casual eye on Salome's undoing (and eliciting a new twist, which, like its main character, could be accused of having gone too far).

click to enlarge Esperanza Spalding - LEIGH WEBBER
  • Leigh Webber
  • Esperanza Spalding

Still reeling from the opera, I made a mad dash to Cistern Yard to catch what I could of Esperanza Spalding, who was already training her prodigious talents with the hopes of curing all that ails us, one body part at a time. Joined by Matthew Stevens, Marcus Gilmore, and Morgan Guerin, Spalding for the main portion of the show floated before us in an ethereal orange dress, all citrony chiffon and shimmer, an otherworldly, self-possessed singing sprite blithely vowing to bring on the magic.

And bring it on she did, performing numbers from her LP 12 Little Spells, which travels the human anatomy by way of poetic lyrics and innovative instrumentation. A bass-heavy, rhythmic backup offered ballast to wafting vocal incantations, together creating a curious trance over those who were receptive to it in the balmy Cistern Yard (Spalding seemed to make note of the audience divide herself when she queried patrons on seating assignments).

She paid tribute to our screen-addled minds in "Dancing the Animal." She bid us loosen up our hips in "Thang." She got to those aforementioned, ubiquitous roots by urging us to honor the maternal power of our so-deemed abdominal portal in "The Longing Deep Down" and to fulfill the yearning for a father's embrace through our own arms in "All Limbs Are." With vocals that glistened magnificently over the undulating, driving sonic of her band, she sent curious vibrations that elicited a tingle.

click to enlarge Works throughout Black Refractions: Highlights from the Studio Museum in Harlem  span decades - JORDAN CASTEEL/COURTESY GIBBES MUSEUM OF ART
  • Jordan Casteel/Courtesy Gibbes Museum of Art
  • Works throughout Black Refractions: Highlights from the Studio Museum in Harlem span decades

Between performances on Saturday, I tucked into the Gibbes Museum of Art for Black Refractions: Highlights from the Studio Museum in Harlem, the momentous touring exhibition that is part of the 2019 festival lineup. Works throughout the sizable show span decades, with many serving to elevate and confer status upon African Americans past and present — thereby making a space where one has not existed and highlighting the identity of those who may have otherwise lived and died without such archiving.

Among those works is "Lawdy Mama," a 1969 work by Barkley L. Hendricks that casts an oil portrait of a black woman against a gilded Byzantine backdrop. There are also Whitfield Lovell's 2002 "Coin XXVII" and "Coin XXI," images of unnamed individuals on wooden disks inked in an august portraiture style akin to presidential portraits on currency. Together, these and other works forged a transfixing visual throughline of the African American experience, one that should not be missed.

click to enlarge Roots deploys live performance, illustration, and video to spin unsettling yarns - LEIGH WEBBER
  • Leigh Webber
  • Roots deploys live performance, illustration, and video to spin unsettling yarns

From there, 1927's Roots deployed its hallmark mashup of live performance, illustration, and video to revisit frequently fanged folk tales that reveal how humans have forever been a bit twisted in their fable-making — and how improbable it is to break free from those gnarled narratives. Told one by one via voiceovers by the company's friends and family, the show situates its four troupe members before and behind an animated screen, where they amiably spin surprisingly unsettling yarns,

A fat cat unabashedly eats his way to hell. A chauvinistic king commands a cruel test of his wife. A mother and father endeavor to rid themselves of their child. And two irksome kids aim to sever their roots by doing away with their mother, only to find out how impossible that is. While not quite the epic feat of 1927's recent festival offering Golem, which considered the beast that is modern technology, this year's world-premiere offering is a genial, if not too terribly ambitious, teasing out of the dark throughline of our cultural legacy.

In dance, French choreographer Hervé Koubi was similarly inspired by his own roots upon the surprising discovery of his Algerian lineage, a story he shares in front of the Gaillard curtain before the majestically charged What the Day Owes to the Night. A dozen male dancers, among them Algerian, Burkinabe, Israeli and Palestinian members of Compagnie Hervé Koubi, make awe-inspiring use of backgrounds in capoeira, hip-hop and street dance to engage in the choreographer's mining of the merging of North African and European identity and culture, sampling diverse dance styles set to a score hopping from traditional Sufi music to Bach.

In swirling, flapping waist-down ivory trousers under white spots lit from above the stage, the dancers huddle, whirl, stomp, flip, reach, leap, and fall, vigorously coming together and spinning apart in a rigorous, resplendent athleticism, repeatedly eluding absolute unison as one or another catapults outward to then wend back in. This gorgeous flurry of force, punctuated by intimate moments with held hands or a lone, left dancer, creates an ever-shifting tableau of, yes, our roots, weaving together and emerging distinct. A recurring confluence, they chase strains and confer connections, as only artists can, setting Spoleto's stages for kinetic, convergent festival days to come.


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