Spoleto Festival USA 2016 celebrates its 40th anniversary (review)

Last time I was here in 2013 I was swept into the flurry of opening celebrations, including the noontime grandstand with mayoral speeches and brass band and the late night garden party for sponsors, complete with celebrity gawking and southern finery sightings.

Dancers from Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company perform at the opening ceremony of Spoleto Festival USA 2016 in front of the City Hall, Charleston, SC. (Photo: Julia Lynn Photography)

Dancers from Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company perform at the opening ceremony of Spoleto Festival USA 2016 in front of the City Hall, Charleston, SC. (Photo: Julia Lynn Photography)

The flurry this time was of a different sort entirely. While we drove into Charlestown this Memorial Day weekend and enjoyed our first day in the typical sunshine and warmth of the Low Country, this would be short lived. On our second day the rains began and weather delivered us tropical rainstorm “Bonnie.”

We started our weekend’s artistic fare with Music in Time, a talk from Helmut Lachenmann whose opera, The Little Match Girl, has promoted enough buzz about its idiosyncratic score that the production might prove to be the stand out event in this year’s festival. The work also features the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra and Westminster Choir (with combined power of 120 performers.) Several from the choir were in attendance at the talk and reminded me of one of the important functions of Spoleto USA as an important training ground for young professional musicians, not only in terms of building technique and repertoire but musical taste.  Many present clearly showed not only their admiration for the composer’s talents but a genuine fondness for this craggy German provocateur and seemingly would follow him down his continued path in experimenting with sound as music.

Read Susan’s review of The Little Match Girl

Helmut Lachenmann, composer of The Little Match Girl at Spoleto Festival 2016 (Photo by Astrid Karger, Saarbrücken

Helmut Lachenmann, composer of The Little Match Girl at Spoleto Festival 2016 (Photo by Astrid Karger, Saarbrücken

Lachenmann is at one and the same time modest, generous, and adamant in expounding on his arsenal of sound making and his philosophy in favor of anti-music.  “I was ruined early on,” he told the audience wryly. He had come up through the age of the great experiments in modern music, when key composers were trying to tear down certain traditions and clichés of musical solutions.

Lachenmann has continued to fight against melody, finding sounds in the environment and organizing them, ever pushing into new frontiers. When Artistic Director of the festival Nigel Redden greeted Lachenmann with some nicety like “I hope you like the sound of our orchestra.”  He had answered with all sincerity, “Well, if not at the beginning then by the end I won’t.”

Soprano Yuko Kakuta, who sings as one of the sopranos in Helmut’s opera of The Match Girl, gave us a glimpse into his work by performing a short piece comprised of clicks, percussive consonants, hums, trilled r’s, and piercing cries. At points, it felt like a theatrical improvisation in speaking an alien language, Klingon, let’s say. Several times she would turn her back on the audience and put forth something between a musical note and a scream into the body of the piano. For some people in the audience it was painfully strange, for others a novel curiosity, but for many willing to open themselves to Lachenmann’s explorations, it was thrilling indeed.

Theatrically, I was most fascinated by the way the soprano found ways of organizing his demanding score through emotion. Whether the sounds gave her the feeling which then helped organize the sounds or she had made a decision emotionally to color a line which in turn helped her phrasing, there was something – though not provided by the composer – emotional being communicated.

 John Worthing (Michael Ford-FitzGerald), left, and Algernon Moncrief (Alex Felton) in Gate Theatre's production of The Importance of Being Earnest at Spoleto Festival 2016 (Photo: Julia Lynn Photography)

John Worthing (Michael Ford-FitzGerald), left, and Algernon Moncrief (Alex Felton) in Gate Theatre’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest at Spoleto Festival 2016 (Photo: Julia Lynn Photography)

Friday night we took in The Gate Theatre’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest that has a music all its own.  It was great being seated again in the Dock Theatre. Restored since 2010, with its warm wood balconies and pillars, it’s a gem of a little theatre and its bones offered a perfect encasing for the terrific chestnut of a play.  This is Wilde at both his most frothy and most socially searing. Phrase per phrase, pound for pound, The Importance of Being Earnest is arguably the most perfect comedy of manners and language ever written.

Those of us who know this classic well, we play the music in our heads and that is part of relishing the experience as the sparkling dialogue whizzes past.  The repartee of two young men fussing over who is to eat and who is not to eat the “cucumber sandwiches” is intentionally silly, because of the repeated sound-rhythms. “Cucumber sandwiches, cucumber sandwiches” sashays nimbly like a fox trot. When learning that John aka Earnest can produce no more suitable lineage than a parcel and therefore dashes any hopes of making an alliance with her upper crust daughter Gwendolyn, Lady’s Bracknell’s indignant, “A handbag?!”  – with its upward inflection on the last syllable that is hung onto for three beats and, in some performances, a caesura, is divinely anticipated.

The Importance of Being Earnest
Spoleto Festival USA
Charleston, South Carolina
May 26 – June 11, 2016
Details and tickets
It became clear to the players on stage as well as those of us who treasure this play, that many in the audience were hearing the work “with fresh ears.” In fact, part of the delightful “mash” of Spoleto Festival audiences is that while the artsy and cognoscenti, along with Charleston’s “wouldn’t-miss-it” patrons, come and go, often attired for post-opening galas, there are many who travel great distances to try out a little chamber music, dance, theatre or even opera.

What an incredible introduction to Wilde’s great class in such astonishingly capable hands! The Irish Gate Theatre, one of the great repertory theatre companies in the world, has returned to Spoleto for the tenth time to deliver the most perfect cast for this play.  These figures of the elegant Gwendolen (Aoibhin Garrihy,) the perky wide-eye Cecily (Lorna Quinn,) the dressed-over-the-top fop Algernon (Alex Felton,) the self-righteous Jack-Earnest (Michael Ford-Fitzgerald,) and of course the indomitable Lady Bracknell (Deirdre Donnelly,) – and indeed the whole cast – were picture perfect.

But that is what made it all the more curious.  The lines came out “just right,” the business was “on point,” and the elegant minimalist set seemed to float the whole play as if on a bed of meringue. Yet many in the audience were more than a little mystified. I overheard someone whisper, “Well, it all seems so artificial, like Downton Abbey. People don’t talk that way!” Oh dear.

So the stalwart Irish company came out second half and laid it on thick, especially the physicality. Merriman as the country butler was the one who nearly brought down the house reeling off balance as he flung a lace tablecloth over a tea table then tottered off.

Director Patrick Mason favored a melodramatic style of delivery, with lots of direct addresses and double takes to the audience. I loved most the moments when within the style and music, the actors could penetrate inside the moment and create an inner reality.

Marion O’Dwyer as Miss Prism, the governess, filled every moment as she poured over the German text mouthing words or struggled to find a passage. Quinn’s Cecily also convinced me of what on the surface has always seemed a silly naiveté with just the right blend of a kind of optimistic myopia in her wide-eyed expression and devilish delight in pricking false balloons.

If I had been somewhat curious about why such a classic would have been included in the festival that has such a name for bringing cutting edge works of the world stage, by the end I marveled again at Redden’s sure instincts in balancing out this festival with other less intrepid works but ones that can be thoroughly enjoyed as entertainment. Redden modestly acknowledges the programming challenge, “I know my tightrope.”

Bill T. Jones Arnie Zane Dance Company,  Continuous D-Man in the Waters at Spoleto Festival 2016 (Photo:  Paul B. Goode)

Bill T. Jones Arnie Zane Dance Company, Continuous D-Man in the Waters at Spoleto Festival 2016 (Photo: Paul B. Goode)

Jones came into the dance world in the seventies, and I saw him first in Minneapolis at the Walker Art Center.  He was one of the first to build intentionally a multi-cultural multi-racial company. He was also known then as a fierce and somewhat intractable artist, driven by a kind of fury. As African-American, gay, and a male dancer, he was carrying a lot for those times. Here at Spoleto, and with years of accolades and an esteemed body of work, he seems to have reached a place where perhaps certain life issues have been resolved. In any case, his work feels full of wisdom and humanity without having lost an iota of its edge.

I asked Jake, a young man sitting next to me who had only seen one other dance program before and never quite like this, to help me describe the performance.  What did he see? “Random movements… very random, and fluid, scattered pieces. I tried to find the patterns repeat. I like the movements.  They were such athletes. I like the way women lifted as much as the men. I loved what they could do.”

Yes. Undeniably, the level of virtuosity was there.  A level of trust in their community as they leapt or fell and were caught, lifted and carried. The joy and fearlessness they displayed, leaping like fish up out of the water and over each other, cueing each other only sporadically with a “hup.” Throughout the evening they were sharing with us what they live for.  “Play and Play: An Evening of Movement and Music,” the title of the program, was so apt.

The first half of the program “Story” uses the vocabulary of post-modern dance where vernacular movements of walking, rolling, and jumping are combined, entrances and exits blur beginnings and ending of solos, duets, and so on, and the approach to male and female roles is fully androgynous and equally taxing. Bill T. Jones makes it feel fresh and exhilarating.

The second work  “D-Man in the Waters”  with everyone dressed in some form of fatigues, used military drills and postures to create something both familiar and moving.

Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Dance Company
Spoleto Festival USA
Charleston, South Carolina
Details and tickets
I found myself gasping and then wanting to weep at times everything was so beautiful and theatrical.  Adding to the feast, a quartet played beautifully live on stage Franz Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” for the first half of the program.  During the second half, an enlarged musical ensemble, played, though not on stage, Felix Mendelssohn’s “Octet for Strings in E-flat Major.”

Antonio Brown, Rena Butler, Cain Coleman, Jr., Talli Jackson, Shane Larson, I-Ling Liu, Jenna Riegel, Christina Robson, and Carlo Antonio Villanueva are simply superb. Jones knows how to get the best out of these dancers and feature each of their strengths. This is perfection indeed.

Coming out of the show, we discovered the weather had turned unkind, and the usual languid stroll home along flowering tree streets dotted with seersucker (for men) and silk (for women) became a scurry and puddle jump between awnings. By morning, streets and park greens were flooded.

By Saturday night we were soggy physically and emotionally as well and were plunged from the dynamic post-modern dance program of Bill T. Jones to the rarefied form of Baroque opera. It’s the kind of juxtaposition that can be enlivening in festivals such as Spoleto.

L-R: Damon (Robert Getchell), Clarice (Maïlys de Villoutreys), and Florise (Isabelle Poulenard) in La Double Coquette at Spoleto Festival USA 2016 (Photo: William Struhs)

L-R: Damon (Robert Getchell), Clarice (Maïlys de Villoutreys), and Florise (Isabelle Poulenard) in La Double Coquette at Spoleto Festival USA 2016
(Photo: William Struhs)

Expectedly, La Double Coquette, written in the early days of Opéra Comique, was going to get something of a “complete makeover.”  Wanting to break with conformity, librettist Pierre Alferi took an old pants role convention and gave it a modern twist. In the original, a woman dons male garb to teach her wandering lover a lesson by courting her own rival that drives him back into her arms.  Alferi pushes the opportunity of cross-dressing to explore the fluidity of sexual identities.

La Double Coquette
Spoleto Festival USA
Charleston, South Carolina
May 28 – June 1, 2016
Details and tickets

There are other updates. When we are introduced to Florise, she’s been jilted and is moping over her lost lover. But after getting an evening invitation on her iPad, she recovers sufficiently after checking out her rival on Facebook to don a foam-padded male suit (curiously not updated) and goes to court Clarice. During the courtship, both women discover new stirrings (“Fond hope reassure my heart,”) and both women end up throwing off the male lover.

Costume designer Annette Messager has been quite inventive and especially successful with dressing Clarice where the costume becomes quite the event. A hooped skirt, short in front and long in back, features rainbow-colored boas stitched together.  When Clarice feels her heart begin to flutter, this skirt starts to raise in back and shivers like a male peacock on display. A life sized boa warps her torso also gets much play.

Singers Isabelle Poulenard, Mailys de Villoutreys, and Robert Getchell play the ménage a trois and are terrific singers of this style. I was particularly taken by Villoutreys’ voice, which is very nimble and uses so expressively the catch and bending of the note that is part of this musical style. Getchell has a very strong instrument, and Poulenard demonstrates a languorous elegance musicality in her role.

Nonetheless, opera performance today demands much more sophisticated staging and theatrical nuance.  The generalized movements and unmotivated gestures suggested a carelessness in the stage direction which did not help the singers. Suffice it to say, we did not end up caring for these three and their not-so-unusual predicament. Nor could I believe Getchell could have ever stirred either of the women’s hearts, his movements were so restricted and leaden. As for the amorous redirections of the two young women, this could have been a hot discovery indeed. As it was, it was only tepid.


Coming next in Susan’s coverage of Spoleto Festival USA 2016: Porgy and Bess




Susan Galbraith About Susan Galbraith

Susan Galbraith received a BA in English and Drama from Tufts University, graduating summa cum laude and Phi beta kappa. Settling in Minneapolis for a time, she earned an MFA from the University of Minnesota, founded a theatre company, Performers Ensemble, and also collaborated with Prince on writing songs and the first draft of Purple Rain. Susan was part of the acting company at Boston Shakespeare Company under Peter Sellars. Since 1991, she has made D.C. her home where she has enjoyed the opportunity to write plays, direct, act, and produce. She helped co-found Alliance for New Music-Theatre and collaborated on original works across disciplines, styles, and cultural expressions of music-theatre. For the Alliance, Susan adapted and directed Kafka's Metamorphosis and is currently collaborating with composer Maurice Saylor on adapting Karel Capek's R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) as a retro-futuristic musical.This Fall she directs an "apartment performance" of Vaclav Havel's Protest which will perform in D.C. and NYC.



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