SPOLETO REVIEW: A reflection on festival curation, with mini-reviews of chamber music, Old Crow Medicine Show, & Brandi Carlile

chamber music By: Kyle Petersen

I saw three musical performances as part of Spoleto USA over Memorial Day weekend: the raucous old-timey string band Old Crow Medicine Show, the sleek and powerful pop-rock singer/songwriter Brandi Carlile, and Program II of the Bank of America Chamber Music Series curated by Geoff Nuttall.

In 2016, that list is hardly surprising, but it wasn’t too long ago that those first two names would have drawn pause from longtime festival patrons. Spoleto made its reputation on cutting-edge but cosmopolitan “high” art performances, bringing in a fascinating and eclectically curated selection of theatre, opera, dance, and chamber, symphonic, choral, and jazz music. You’ll notice that rock, pop, folk, blues, and country didn’t quite make the cut.

That seems to have shifted (as far as I can tell), in the mid-2000s, when the festival loosened its strictures to allow some favored roots, soul, and folk artists to its stages, sliding them into their Jazz series, closing night finales, and, eventually, as part of their regular music programming.

I used to read this evolution in two ways, both fairly cynical: 1), that the festival was just following the interests and tastes of their older and more staid demographic, both of which had changed considerably since the inaugural Spoleto USA in 1976; 2), that they were trying to be a kind of shortsighted arbiter of contemporary music, selecting the most conservative and retro-minded on of popular contemporary music, in stark contrast to their mostly forward-thinking selections elsewhere.

As snide as that assessment is, it never stopped me from enjoying the high caliber the festival booked in past years, but this year I think I had a change of heart about the why of it.

If you flip both of those assumptions on their head and try to see the positive, forward-thinking rationale behind the curation shift, you seem something fundamentally different. After all, what Spoleto proves year after year is that aging, no-longer mainstream art forms like dance, opera, classical music, and (to a lesser extent) theatre still have an artistic vibrancy to them, that they are creative expressions very much worth keeping around precisely because we still have gifted artists still capable of reinventing or reframing them in a way that’s entertaining and edifying to contemporary audiences.

It’s Geoff Nuttall who probably deserves the most praise for this realization. As a curator and master of ceremonies for the chamber music series he is without compare, capable of bringing ample doses of humor, wit, and expertise to an expansive selection of compositions that he can breathe new life into for the audiences. Program II was bookended by Mozart’s Concerto in B-Flat Major, K. 191, which served to showcase the tremendous talents of bassoonist Peter Kolkay, and Maurice Ravel’s gypsy-derived Tzigane, which saw violinist Livia Sohn blazing away at entrancing melodies and derivations alongside Stephen Prutsman’s piano accompaniment.  There was awesome an easy homerun in there with a few Gershwin tunes sung by contratenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, something this Porgy & Bess-obsessed audience lapped up with glee.

My personal favorite of the program, though, was the Kreitzer Sonato. Based on a Leo Tolstory novella that was itself based on a Beethoven sonata, there's an exaggerated sense of theatre and drama built nicely on top of a string quartet that makes for a highly engaging piece of music. Nuttall walked the audience through the story before beginning of the piece, often pausing to note what musical phrases denoted what/when in the action of the story, essentially establishing the vocabulary of the composition in a breezy, accessible fashion that utterly upends the sense of inscrutability classical music performances can occasionally have.

That ability to make classical music sound not only contemporary but almost urgently relevant, I think, is the through line to the festival’s larger curation goals.

Of course, Americana and folk-tinged pop-rock have hardly risen to “high art” status and are far from the relative irrelevancy facing many of the other art forms Spoleto champions, but they are trending down. EDM, hip-hop, “indie” rock and stadium country are the most popular musical forms today, there’s no mistaking it, particularly among younger audiences. And yet there’s so much good, vital music being made outside of those categories.

Old Crow Medicine Show is a prime example of this reality. Although they benefited enormously from the post-O Brother Where Art Thou? folk and old-timey boom (something which seems to have indirectly led to those musical styles’ introduction to Spoleto), they also felt like a band steeped in tradition that was startling new, crafting original songs and sounds out of the most venerable of parts. And even setting the success of “Wagon Wheel” aside, they’ve charted a fascinating path towards wider mainstream acceptance and awareness.


Their sold-out Friday night performance at the Cistern Yard (they also played Thursday) was a work of consummate showmanship, making wonderful nods to the setting, region, and the weekend (a veteran’s shout-out before the anti-war “Levi”) that never felt forced yet always came across as professional. Their battery of singers and ability to slide a radio hit as rock ‘n’ roll as “I Won’t Back Down” into a nicely balanced selection of originals was noteworthy. There was plenty of frenzied fiddling and even some gratuitous hee-haw two stepping, but these guys are truly charting their own song-driven course. They played “Wagon Wheel” of course, to immense enthusiasm to their crowd, but they weren’t owned by it, not by a long shot.

Brandi Carlile, who was forced into TD Arena instead of the Cistern because of the weather, plays with a similar passion. Her milieu is a bit different—she namechecks Crosby, Stills & Nash as inspiration, and the twin giants of Stevie Nicks and Melissa Etheridge hang over her alternatively bittersweet and bombastic folk-rock sound—but you can’t help but be in awe of how much life she breathes into her performances. Flanked by Tim and Phil Hanseroth, two side players who would hardly be notable if they weren’t twins (excepting their rich harmonies), Carlile wills herself into rock god status, with a soaring falsetto one moment and a throaty holler the next. Her pivots from commercially polished pop-rock to gritty blues-tinged grooves and 70s coffeehouse singer/songwriterisms always feel natural yet innervating, as if she’s a great student of rock ‘n’ roll who is occasionally capable of transcending the masters.


Both acts are incredibly able live talents, with seasoned performance styles built for the kind of grueling tour schedules they now need to maintain to make a living at this racket. But I’m drawn most to the idea that they are doing something with traditions that might now feel like they should be a bit solidified—you know, the way we think of jazz, theatre, dance, opera, and all of the other forms Spoleto champions. And that’s when I realized how much I am not only a fan of Spoleto USA as a bounty of artistic riches, but that I’m fully invested in the value system that seems to underpin their curation.

Even if they probably won’t bring in Chance the Rapper next year.

SPOLETO REVIEW: Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company Perform Modern Dance Classic

Final movement of D-Man in the Waters In its fourth year of performing at Spoleto (1989, 2001, 2006, 2016) the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, known for its innovative approach to contemporary dance, did not disappoint in their performance of two unique pieces of choreography on Saturday, May 29th. As the lights went down at the beginning of the first piece, titled Story and choreographed by Jones in 2013, the 9 member dance company posed on stage with one member of the Spoleto Festival Orchestra who then took his place onstage alongside three other quartet members accompanying the dancers.

Purposeful, athletic, and classically modern are some of the descriptors Bonnie Boiter-Jolley, soloist with Columbia City Ballet and contributing dance editor to Jasper, used to describe the dance, adding that the choreography had almost a tribal or animalistic feel to it. Sparse group vocalizations added to the totemic ambience of the piece, sometimes catching the audience off-guard and reinforcing the reality that a corps of dancers of this caliber can easily and seamlessly sequence from performing as unique individuals to performing as a single unit--a hive-brained organism with grace and finesse.

"There is no meaningless movement," Boiter-Jolley says, as she traces the formula of the phraseology being used. "Each section had its own vocabulary and each dancer knows and uses that vocabulary throughout the choreography. There is nothing random--it's all very specific."

Boiter-Jolley points out the quote from Jasper Johns that introduces the first piece of choreography in the program, "... take something and do something to it, and then do something else to it ..." and notes how it explains the creation of the dance, explaining that this common technique was used frequently when she danced with Spectrum Dance Theatre under Donald Byrd in Seattle, as well as with Columbia's Wideman-Davis Dance, Thaddeus Davis having trained under Byrd himself.

The second act of the performance found the orchestra in the pit and the dance company performing D-Man in the Waters,  a classic piece of modern dance. First created in 1989, D-Man in the Waters is dedicated to Demian Acquavella, a 32-year-old company member whose valiant fight against AIDS inspired the piece. Acquavilla died in 1990 but the piece has continued to be performed by various companies, including Alvin Ailley, over the decades, always introducing the multi-faceted spirit of Acquavilla onto the stage. It should also be noted that Arnie Zane, Jones's partner in dance and life, had died of AIDS in 1988, as well.

Set to Mendelssohn's Octet for Strings, the dancers are costumed in cammo fatigues to symbolize the ongoing battle against AIDS. Much of the phraseology focuses on mutual assistance with dancers tumbling across one another and clinging to one another to stay afloat. The final sequence depicts the corps of dancers tossing a featured dancer high into the air as the lights go out. Powerful stuff indeed.

Company members include Antonio Brown, Rene Butler, Cain Coleman, Jr., Talli Jackson, Shane Larson, I-Ling Liu, Jenna Riegel, Christine Robson, and Carlo Antonio Villanueva.


Jasper Does Spoleto - part 4, Chamber Music & Chinese Opera

16853683562_50c36dce4a_z By: Kyle Petersen

One of the many amazing things about Spoleto is the diversity in its music programming, spanning from its acclaimed chamber music series and contemporary opera to noise-jazz and traditional folk music, with everything in between also being represented. While we’ve already written about the charming performance given by Americana duo Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell early on in the festival, we’d like to talk briefly about some of the more highbrow (and quite excellent) music we’ve also been enjoying here.

Bank of America Chamber Music


We caught Program IV of this series last Wednesday and could not have been more satisfied with the experience. Programming director and violinist Geoff Nutall is a stylish and witty emcee whose rapport with the audience was worth the ticket price alone. Leading the patrons through the eclectic line-up of compositions with flair and poise, he kept the audience at ease even as the performances themselves set us back.

Alternating between uber-traditional fare (Mozart’s Sonata in G Major, K. 379, Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte, op. 98, and Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no. 2 in F Major, BWV 1047) and more adventurous compositions from Huang Ruo, whose Chinese performance art opera Paradise Interrupted is also featured at the festival, and 20th century Russian composer Alfred Schnittke, the program’s variety and shifts in tone and texture presented a fascinating window into the historical breadth of chamber music as well hinting at all of the possibilities and potential that still exist for the format. Nutall and pianist Pedja Muzijevic opened with the virtuosic flurry of notes required for Mozart sonata, only to be followed up by the unusual instrumentation (violin, cello, voice, djembe, bassoon, pipa) required for Ruo’s “Flow… (I and II),” a folk-indebted piece that showcased the pipa, a traditional Chinese lute that we would later also hear used to great effect in Paradise Interrupted.

Next was the husband-and-wife team of baritone Tyler Duncan and pianist Erika Switzer, who took us through the Beethoven song cycle. The couple gave an assured performance, aided by Nutall’s helpful note that the English translation of the lyrics were printed in the program.

My favorite piece on the program, though, was Schnittke’s austere, enigmatic Hymn II, a piece which saw double bassist Anthony Manzo and cellist Christopher Costanza carefully align the movements of their bows as they produced fragile, ghostly timbres and atonal harmonies that prickled the spine.

The concert closed with an ensemble performance of the popular (and canonical) Brandenberg Concerto, with the slight twist of an E-flat clarinet, played by Todd Palmer, taking place of the traditional piccolo trumpet. The performers gave a lovely rendition of the tune, although audience members are more likely to remember the slapstick improv brought on Nutall and, between movements, oboist Austin Smith, who ostentatiously paused the performance to clean out his instrument.

It’s also worth noting that there was a beautiful moment between movements when a scattering of applause broke out, a bit of a faux paus in classical music performances. Not only did the audience, after some uncertainty, begin clapping along with those that jumped the gun, but they were urged on by Nutall, tradition be damned. It was a giddy feeling, and emphasized the warm balance of world class musicianship and casual relatability that defines the series.

Paradise Interrupted


Later that day we caught the evening performance of Ruo Huo and Jennifer Wen Ma’s opera. It’s a bit of an abstract, high-concept piece that melds Chinese traditions with Western idioms that takes place in a dreamlike landscape. The music was breathtaking, particularly the gorgeous performances delivered by Qian Yi, the show’s star, and countertenor John Holiday, whose voice continues to haunt me, but it was hard not to get lost in the cerebral excellence of the set design. Many might remember Wen Ma name from her work on the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where she directed and designed the opening and closing ceremonies, and her work here has a similar mesmerizing effect. Using a large white performance space and unorthodox lighting, as well as a host of large props and trap doors, a vividly unreal world emerges and disappears over the course of the opera that has to function and opera differently given the limitations of each venue it’s performed at. It’s hard not to note that this kind of immersive, multidisciplinary approach is actually what’s needed in an art form too often grasping tenuously to its past.

Jasper Does Spoleto -- Reviews, Recountings, & Recommendations, part 1 in a series

This year, Jasper has a number of editors and writers on the Spoleto scene in hot and humid Charleston, SC, bringing readers up-to-the-minute reviews and recommendations for how best to program your daytrips and overnighters to the Holy City for some of the best international art to come this way since, well, last year's festival. Also, in the great tradition of fringe festivals worldwide, Piccolo Spoleto also offers the opportunity to see works by both emerging and established artists, both local and from fields afar, for a ticket price that is often significantly less than the often-hefty priced Spoleto festival entrance fees.



A Streetcar Named Desire

Jasper's Picks for this year's festival included the Scottish Ballet's new interpretation of Tennessee Williams' classic Southern drama, A Streetcar Named Desire.

Set to a sultry score by Peter Salem, Scotland's national ballet company cast a spell over the audience at the College of Charleston's Sottile Theatre with an adaptation that was so engaging if was difficult to pay attention to the quality of the dancers' techniques. But when this reviewer could remember to cast a critical eye toward such important building blocks to a successful performance as feet articulation, port de bras, positioning, and execution, she found there was little lacking in the caliber of dancer this company brought to the stage.

A minimalist set consisting primarily of clever lighting and rectangular boxes, some also lit, allowed for  a fluidity that progressed the story of Blanche DuBois, her sister Stella, Stella's man Stanley, and the literally deconstructed Belle Reve plantation along at a surprisingly rapid pace.  With the women costumed in silky chemises and the men in long pants and classic sitting-on-the-stoop-having-a-smoke-and-drinking-a-beer undershirts, and the Charleston humidity fresh on this viewer's bare shoulders, it was easy to be transported to the French Quarter of New Orleans, to find oneself listening for a distant and melancholy saxophone tune to drift by on the wind, to take a deep breath and find filé on the nose. Such was the success of the Scottish Ballet's authentic adaptation of this classic tale. - cb




Sleeping Beauty

Italy’s Carlo Colla and Sons Marionette Company charmed festival audiences with its production of Cinderella in 2010, and returned this year to share their performance of another classic fairy-tale,  Sleeping Beauty.

With 165 meticulously handcrafted puppets and costuming and scenery stunningly hand-painted to complement the story, Eugenio Monti Colla recounts this tale of Aurora with her curses and blessings bestowed according to the original 1697 telling by Charles Perrault, The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood.   

Truly a story for the ages, the performance leaves children mesmerized by the lively marionettes and the tale they weave, and adults enchanted by beauty and intricacy of the tiny actors, which are works of art in and of themselves. - cb


Coming Up -- Haley Sprankle writes about her love affair with Romeo and Juliet, Kyle Petersen writes about opera and chamber music, and Cindi Boiter writes about two Piccolo Spoleto events

My Cousin Rachel at Spoleto - Mini-Review

MyCousinRachel_3 The Columbia arts scene has kept us so busy at Jasper this season that we haven't had the time (or need?) to make it down to this year's Spoleto Festival nearly as much as in years past. It's not because there haven't been some exciting events going on down there -- this year's festival roster was as impressive as ever, from the Westminster Choir's El Nino to Hubbard Street Dance Chicago to the upcoming production of the Gregory Maqoma/Vuyani Dance Theatre.

My Cousin Rachel -- Dock Street Theatre

We did make it down to see a matinee of the Gate Theatre's My Cousin Rachel at Charleston's always inspiring Dock Street Theatre. My Cousin Rachel is a romantic-mystery novel written by Daphne Du Maurier in 1951  and adapted for the stage by Joseph O'Connor -- with more than a hint of the macabre added, at least in this interpretation. The play picks up at the part in the novel after which Ambrose, the owner of a Cornish estate has died following an extended health-related stay in Italy. In Florence, Ambrose fell in love with a cousin Rachel who, after his death, travels to Cornwall to pay her respects to Ambrose's adopted heir, Philip, with whom she soon develops an intimate relationship. The conflict in the play centers around trust -- but not the casual kind of trust, rather a life and death kind of trust. There's a beautiful subtlety to this version of the story interspersed with tense scenes that aptly address the misery of doubt. Of particular interest is the use of carnival masks on familiar cast members when Philip is tormented by dreams while in a feverish sleep.

The Gate theatre out of Dublin brings another fine example of their work to the Spoleto Festival in Charleston. We highly recommend you catch My Cousin Rachel before it closes at the end of the week.


Cedar Lake: Stunning, Post-Modern Choreography Hits Spoleto U.S.A. -- A Guest Blog by Tracie Broom

Twenty seconds into Cedar Lake’s first piece, “Violet Kid,” at their June 2, 2012 performance at Gaillard Auditorium during Spoleto U.S.A. in Charleston, SC, tears were pouring down my face. The choreography, full of licks descended from the hallowed ground of high-end, post-modern release technique – blisteringly physical and intellectual – was so unbelievably GOOD.

Maybe you’ve seen the 2011 Matt Damon movie, The Adjustment Bureau? Damon’s love interest, played by Emily Blunt, leads a dance company in NYC called Cedar Lake, and he spends half the film shouting, “Where is Cedar Lake!” in an effort to find her while eluding guys in fedoras. Well, he finds her, spending a quiet moment marveling as the Cedar Lake dance company performs. This performance is so very, very good that I found myself marveling, too. It was like nothing I’d seen in a “non-dance” movie since a few snippets in the 1996 Bertolucci film Stealing Beauty. (Remember that?)


When my Spoleto 2012 program arrived in the mail, mere days after my catching The Adjustment Bureau on cable, how stoked was I that Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet was coming to SC? Pretty stoked. Bought tickets immediately. (Talk about effective brand placement in a film, no?)

Led by Artistic Director Benoit-Swan Pouffer and based in New York City, Cedar Lake’s mission is “to provide choreographers a comprehensive environment for creation and presentation.” Noted by Kinsey Gidick, reporting for Charleston City Paper from the after party the night of June 2 at the College of Charleston President’s House, “The beauty of Cedar Lake is that Walmart heiress and founder, Nancy Walton Laurie, has been insistent that her performers be able to do contemporary ballet as a full-time job, which is to say the cast members live in New York City and don't have to have second and third jobs to survive.”

Guest choreographer Hofesh Schecter, who designed or collaborated on every aspect of “Violet Kid” including the stark, cinematic lighting, edgy music, and everyday costumes, somehow managed to fit all of the absolutely coolest, best parts of post-modern technique and composition into one great, glorious 33-minute piece for 14 dancers. Virtuosic athleticism. Focused, unemotional execution. Intricate, pedestrian movement vocabulary, manipulated into dozens of phrases which were then deconstructed and reassembled into even more variations. Each piece was revisited and made large, small, narrowing, expanding, rising, sinking, slow, fast, impossibly fast, and every other Laban Movement Analysis term I can remember from my dance degree studies at Wesleyan University. This piece used every compositional tool in the box, and thoroughly. What a pleasure to watch.

A consistent return to familiar movements took dancers through every sort of level change, plane (sagittal, horizontal, vertical), and group permutation from solo to duet, trio, quartet, on up to the entire cast thundering across the floor in multiple traveling sequences that, paired with Schecter’s musical composition, gave one goosebumps. (At our beach house that night after the show, inspired, we implemented a rule that you had to “travel” across the floor at least once a day for the remainder of the trip.)

Canon and unison came and went, with A groups, B groups, C groups, D groups and even E groups roiling about, as bits and pieces of traditional Jewish dances made their way into the work, altered and compressed with bits of hip-hop, classical ballet, and contact improvisation until they were barely recognizable.

This, all happening in the middle of downtown Charleston, South Carolina on a Saturday afternoon.

Movement-wise, release technique greats were called to mind: Jose Limon, Bill T. Jones, Ralph Lemon, Trisha Brown, Stephen Petronio, etc. but I noticed subtle nods to the strict, modern traditions of Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham, too. The technique also reminded me fondly of my favorite release teacher back in San Francisco, ODC’s Kathleen Hermesdorf. Reading the program after the performance, I was delighted to read that the U.K-based Schecter has worked with legendary post-modern choreographers like Wim Vandekeybus, who was one of our idols in college for his uncommon, hyper-athletic work.

Unobtrusive costuming consisted of cargo pants and casual shirts in varying shades of khaki, gray, and coral. The music, a lengthy, contemporary classical/modern electronic piece composed by Schecter, featured a live double bass string trio performing in 1800s drab dresses atop a raised platform on stage. The work called up a cross between the most melancholic bits of the Tristan und Isolde prelude by Wagner, the post-mod noise you might enjoy at Conundrum Music Hall, and the deep, sliding strings of the Balanescu Quartet. It was perfect.

Two other pieces comprised the two-hour program. “Annonciation,” was a contemplative, idiosyncratic duet choreographed by post-modern ballet legend Angelin Preljocaj. The third piece, “Grace Engine,” was devised for 15 dancers by Crystal Pite, who has choreographed for phenomenal Spoleto U.S.A. alum Nederlands Dans Theater. While both pieces were extraordinary, neither could quite match the fullness and scope of the opener, and “Grace Engine” was a little too emotionally overwrought for my taste. Overall, however, the program was one for the books. To say that Hofesh Schecter is a genius is a blithering, silly understatement, and I’m honored to have seen this remarkable dance company perform his work.

To view videos of Cedar Lake in performance, start here: http://cedarlakedance.com/repertoire

- Tracie Broom

 Tracie Broom is a post-modern dance snob who likes nothing more than to be put in her place by brilliant work. She lives and works in Columbia, SC.



Abraham.In.Motion (and Wideman/Davis Dance Company) -- A Rant and Review from Spoleto


Jasper loves dance. And while Columbia hosts no small supply of dance companies, sometimes it becomes painfully obvious that, among our abundance of ballet companies, sexy undulating companies, and one-woman show companies in the city, we are missing – or appear to be missing – an excellent contemporary company that addresses social issues, makes us think, and entertains us at the same time. I couldn’t help but think of this on Monday night when I watched the final Spoleto performance of The Radio Show by Abraham.In.Motion at the Emmett Robinson Theatre on the campus of The College of Charleston.

Dancer, choreographer, and founder of Abraham.In.Motion, Kyle Abraham, is clearly a product of two places – Pittsburgh, PA and New York City – and evidence of this was more than obvious in last night’s performance. It was from his hometown of Pittsburgh, where he and his family listened religiously to the voices of Black radio, that Abraham found the impetus for The Radio Show’s concept. When, in 2009, WAMO – the only urban radio station left in Pittsburgh – went off the air, Abraham was struck by the absence of the Black voice from public airways. In program notes he writes, "I wondered how aware listeners were to the goings-on in other urban communities around the country now that this voice had been taken away.  Without black radio, where is the audible voice of the black community? Radio was so present during times of strife in the past. Where is its place today?”

The 34-year-old Abraham, who studied at The Creative and Performing Arts High School in Pittsburgh, continued his education by receiving a BFA from SUNY Purchase and an MFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Among the many honors he has received over the past few years, including the Princess Grace for choreography, a Bessie Award, and being named one of the “25 to Watch by Dance” Magazine in 2009, it is the maturity of his NYC training that stands out about Abraham. Though highly stylized, his technique and that of his dancers (almost all of whom are formally trained and with higher education degrees) is solid, grounded, efficient, and rich in interpretation. When so many dancers are gathering into groups these days and saying, “Hey, look at us! We’re a company!” it was satisfying to see a young new company with a fully realized dance vocabulary, confidence in their mission, a unifying aesthetic, and the training and education to pull it all off.

The evening began with Abraham, who grew up playing piano and cello, approaching the stage via the audience after having tapped a couple of ladies in the audience for impromptu turns in the aisle, reminiscent of the beginning of Alvin Aileys’s Minus 16 earlier in the festival. Abraham gave us a virtuosic solo performance that incorporated into the narrative of the loss of urban radio the concomitant loss of his father’s mental dexterity as he struggled with the deteriorating effects of Alzheimer’s. I get chills when I type these words – he danced to static. As an off-stage radio scanned up and down the dial, encountering bits and pieces of classic music like Aretha Franklin, Al Green, the Chi-lites, and the Shirelles, interspersed with the static left when these songs disappeared from the airwaves, and emblematic of the static his father encountered in his thought processes, Abraham and six other dancers performed three pieces, Preshow, AM 860, and 106.7 FM. Elyse Morris, Rachelle Rafailedes, Rena Butler, Chalvar Monteiro, and Maleek Washington completed the ensemble.

Watching this young company perform so passionately brought to mind Columbia’s own Wideman/Davis Dance Company who, for a few years, were gathering a modest but strong amount of steam among folks who know dance in the city. Thaddeus Davis may be the best choreographer in South Carolina. Like Abraham’s, his work is grounded in technique, socially relevant, and aesthetically unified. But for the past year, Wideman/Davis Dance Company appeared to be missing from Columbia’s dance culture. Where were they? They were at the University of South Carolina teaching, choreographing, and performing, though many of us who follow WDDC – who adore and want to support WDDC – were unaware when these performances took place. On one occasion, I found out the day before a late night show was taking place that it would be occurring. The other performances came and went with some but little recognition.

Here’s the deal – hiding down in the dance building on the USC campus is one of the finest choreographers in the country and, scattered throughout the world, the company members he gathers when he has something to give and the money and support to give it. (Elyse Morris, one of the dancers in last night’s performance, proudly lists Thaddeus Davis among the choreographers whose work she has performed.) But while Kyle Abraham and Abraham.In.Motion has a number of impressive benefactors, including the Heinz Endowments and the New York State Council on the Arts, Wideman/Davis Dance Company does not.

Wideman/Davis Dance Company is another example of the right people not getting the modest amount of money available to artists in SC. When I think of some of the silly things that are funded – funds given to organizations that know more about grant writing than about the arts – it is infuriating.

The problems are multifactorial and include not enough time/money/energy given to promoting the arts and not enough information available about accessing what little money there is out there.

Jasper doesn’t have answers to these problems, but on some days we get as many as 500 readers of What Jasper Said, so maybe some of you do. And here’s a disclaimer – I haven’t spoken to Thaddeus about this post, so I don’t know what his response will be. But I do know that a dance artist of his training (BFA from Butler, MFA from Hollins), with his accolades (the Choo San Goh Award for Choreography, being named, like Abraham above, one of the “25 to Watch in the World” by Dance Magazine, and having the premiere of one of his pieces being named one of the top ten moments in dance by the New York Times), his experience (Davis has danced with Donald Byrd and the Dance Theatre of Harlem among other illustrious companies and choreographed for Alvin Ailey, Julliard and more), and his passion and talent should be celebrated by the city he calls home.

I was fortunate to see Abraham.In.Motion at the Spoleto festival last night – it was an excellent performance. But Columbia is equally as fortunate to have a company the caliber of Wideman/Davis Dance residing in its city. Let’s give WDDC the kind of support they deserve – and let’s see them next year on the Spoleto Festival 2013 stage.

From Spoleto: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater -- A Review

In the history of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater only three people have claimed the title of artistic director: Ailey himself, who founded the company in 1958; Judith Jamison, who danced under Ailey and took over upon his death in 1989; and, Robert Battle, who claimed the title less than one year ago upon the retirement of Jamison. Make no mistake, there has been some chatter in the larger dance community about how well Battle will perform in his new role, (and whether he should have that role at all, given that he has never officially danced with  the company -- though he has set extensive choreography on the company and served as guest artist under Ailey himself.) But, if the company's performance at the International Spoleto Festival 2012 is any indication of how comfortable Battle is in his new role, I don't think dance audiences have a lot to worry about. If only three words could be used to describe the Saturday night performance at Charleston, SC's Gaillard auditorium, inspired, testosterone-heavy, and respectful are the one's Jasper would use. Battle started the evening off with an inspired performance of Minus 16, choreographed by Ohad Naharin. It's an odd concept and odd, but psychically satisfying, choreography. The piece begins with a lone dancer on stage, essentially just goofing off, or doodling around, dancing here and there in what appears to be an improvisational manner  -- the house lights are still up and theatre doors open, and audience members think the guy is  just there to entertain them while they wait on the show to start. The only thing is that, once the show starts, he doesn't leave. In fact, he is joined on stage by more people -- and they are all dressed just like him in dark dapper suits, white shirts, and hats. We soon discover that the performance started long before we thought it did. There are many interesting movements to the piece, a particularly moving segment involving a semi-circular cannon of large, African dance-inspired movements  known as (“Echad Mi Yodea” or “Who Knows One?”). Minus 16 is made up of this and three other pieces of choreography by Naharin, who trained at and eventually became artistic director of Israel's Batsheva Dance Company.

But what was so inspiring about the performance was a surprising segment during which all 20 dancers descended into the audience and chose a dance partner to bring back onto the stage with them. Typically, we don't care for this kind of "audience participation" -- usually finding it not only annoying but a bit of a gyp, if you will, given the price of tickets these days. But this night, something at least fascinating, if not magical, happened.  Of the 20 amateur dancers taken from the audience there were various levels of discomfort and bravado exhibited -- some people were clearly coerced into dancing, others were delighted to participate and boogied or twisted, and sometimes bumped and ground, their hearts out. But one elderly lady, dressed attractively in white slacks and a bright yellow sweater, took her place in the middle of the couples and, well, she owned the stage. Her movements were amateurish, but appropriate. Her body language was restrained, but open. What was so amazing was the almost euphoric comfort she seemed to feel on stage.

When the first act was over, audience members hit the lobby with  huge smiles and intense cases of the warm fuzzies.

The second act of the night consisted of two testosterone-heavy examples of Battle's choreography, Takademe from 1999 and The Hunt from 2001. The overtly rhythmic Takademe, features a single male dancer, in this case, Yannick Lebrun, and is set to the music, Speaking in  Tongues II, by Sheila Chandra. Rarely is choreography so intensely music driven -- the dance itself seemed almost secondary to the lyrics of the music. The Hunt is another male-centered piece featuring six men in samurai-style skirts reminiscent of Martha Graham costuming. Though neither of Battle's pieces were terribly challenging, they were both powerful and inordinately athletic.

The final piece of the night, as usual for a Charleston performance, was the classic from the Ailey rep, Revelations, and, also as usual, it was glorious. Divided into three movements, Revelations was first produced in 1960 as a tribute to the strength and tenacity of African-Americans' faith and an homage to Black history in the US.  The dance features music from gospels and blues, and an amalgam of technically sophisticated choreography and a folksy brand of movement that makes the audience members churn in their seats. The final movement, Move, Members, Move with its 16 dancers clad in yellow costumes and hats and fans was just as breathtaking this weekend as it has been all three times this reviewer has witnessed it.

Welcome Robert Battle to Alvin Ailey Dance -- somehow we feel that the best is yet to come.


From Spoleto: Kepler opera -- great music with a murky narrative -- A Review

  For those who are fans of Phillip Glass, his newest opera Kepler provides two-hours packed with quite recognizable Glass music: swirling arpeggios, cyclically-repeated motifs, tuned percussion, passages deep in the bass, unexpected contrasts bursting though like an exploding star bursting through the dark and twinkling blanket of a night sky.

The Spoleto production of Kepler marks the American premiere of a full production of the opera, which was mounted in Europe several years ago and had a concert staging in New York. The orchestra, under the director of resident conductor John Kennedy, sounded solid in the Sottile Theatre, as did the seven soloists, and especially the 30 members of the Westminster Choir.

The subject is Johannes Kepler, a great scientist who lived from 1571 to 1630 and explored new ways of thinking about the universe and especially our place in it. He was often wrong, but opened the doors to those who came after him. His theories often bolster the idea of a geometry of God in which science and religion could peacefully co-exist. (We all know how that turned out.) He came up with ideas of how the various planets fit in relation to one another and theorized that the planets had elliptical orbits.

The opera isn’t so much about his life as his ideas, not unlike some of Glass's early “portrait operas” such as Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha. This may not sound like great material for opera from which we often expect love and love gone wrong, with a little murder thrown in. The life and work of Kepler may actually have made for a great and compelling opera, even without a lot of hot blood, but this version is so abstract, so lacking in action, and any sort of narrative it is both baffling and boring.

The libretto is based on Kepler’s own writings as well as those of a poet who was his contemporary. Maybe in the original German there was some grace to the words, but they mostly fall heavily to earth.

The “story,” such as it is, is nearly impossible to follow unless one has a decent knowledge of Kepler’s life and work. (The festival program book provides no program or director’s notes for the opera which would greatly help the audience and the opera.) It is a series of disjointed snippets, supposedly a look into Kepler’s mind. It is certainly the artist’s right to take this approach, but is better when it actually works.

Director Sam Helfrich does what he can moving around 40 people  who don’t have that much to do, often using the choir as a university classroom full of eager 16th century students. He and set designer Andrew Lieberman have devised some beautiful and compelling scenes. The set itself is a simple one of wood and some tables and chairs with most of the changes taking place through lighting effects on a huge screen. One of the high points is what we guess is a representation of the supernova of 1604 which was viewed with awe throughout Europe, including by Kepler. The orchestra builds as the exploding star rises on screen and then suddenly drops away washing through the hall like the light. Unfortunately later in the opera most of the choir starts bleeding through their white shirts which feels like a desperate grasp at adding some excitement.

Like the one-character opera Emilie staged at the festival last year, Kepler would really be more effective staged as a concert where its ideas and music would be unencumbered by attempts at dramatic flair.

Additional performances of Kepler take place May 28, 31 and June 2.