Charleston ravishes the senses. The unique aromas of this town hit you on your first step onto its streets.
Confederate jasmine and magnolia mix with the smell of salty pluff mud at low tide. That in turn folds in the smell of carriage horses tirelessly transporting tourists up and down its historical corridors. If it’s early you just might get a whiff of Callie’s biscuits, because even then the humidity means the smells stick to the air. But as the sun creeps up, standing out on the battery, you can imagine the air that’s come across the ocean is filtered old world into new. And I swear I can also detect in that cross-breeze the complexities of sweat of the slaves and artisans who not of their own volition found themselves here but who nonetheless with their talents of brick and ironwork brought grace to this town.
It’s not only the nostrils that are titillated. Noon, and the bells begin to peel near the courthouse where people have been gathering to sit in chairs in the hot sun or huddle under the eaves across the street in the skimpy shade for the Opening Ceremonies of Spoleto Festival’s 42nd year. Already singer Ann Caldwell has been treating us to a prelude of jazz standards with her rich and tempered sound, reminding me that some of the chance music that will be caught just crossing the streets between venues is high par indeed in this city that for seventeen days (May 25-June 10) will be a riotous celebration of the arts.
You could make a diet just of great chamber music with eleven different programs repeated three times each during the festival alone. Across several venues there’s arguably something for everyone’s musical taste: from chamber music to Afro-Cuban Chuchu Valdés and from opera to the shimmery sonic alchemy of the Westminster Choir.
But what keeps me coming is the eclectic variety of art forms that come together in such close proximity that they begin to vibrate like the canvases of Rothko. Music. Opera. Dance. Theater. And now circus. This is Spoleto.
2018 Spoleto Festival USA
closes June 10, 2018
Details and tickets
It wasn’t always such a panoply.
Martin Wisse fills me in. He’s a retired left-brain guy, originally from New Jersey, who settled here and has been coming to Spoleto for all of its forty-two years. Back then Charleston was a significantly more conservative town than it is today. If there was nudity on stage, audiences were aghast. But that suited founding Artistic Director Carlo Menotti just fine. Back then there was not even a whiff of jazz programming. Classical. Classical. Classical. Or, as Martin puts it, “El Maestro would have been content to listen every evening to ‘Amahl and the night crawlers.’
Now God smiles on the richness of arts – several pitched “international” and “world class” but a few homegrown – from classic to cutting-edge. As founding pastor Greg Surratt of Seacoast Church prays in the opening ceremonies, “Bless us, Lord of Creation, that the arts can unite us in these troubled times.” Amen.
Mayor John Tecklenburg and the burghers of this fair town would agree that the arts enrich us as they bring us together, as attested by the support of local establishments. As for the community here and beyond, box office records show that this year’s sales have already exceeded all but 2016 when the opera about this town, Porgy and Bess, was remounted with the proud colorful costume designs by local designer/artist Jonathan Green.
This year may not boast that kind of headline but there is sure plenty to celebrate and to discover.
The legacy of Jerome Robbins will be celebrated in much-anticipated performances by Miami City Ballet. The great soprano Natalia Pavlova, adored by past festival goers, will be singing in a special multi-media program. On the other end of the spectrum, the young and hungry company from Adelaide Australia, Gravity and Other Myths, will allow us to get up close and personal into the minds of people taking ultimate risks in redefining circus work.
We got a taste of this ensemble during opening ceremonies, where under the blazing sun and with bodies glistening with dangerously slippery sweat, girls were thrown around with abandon and human towers were built and toppled. These guys made it look like fun.
It was delightful that on my first evening I could discover more about the work of this group, which was first shot out of a proverbial canon as recently as 2009. The program was called Backbone.
From my earliest recollections I have been fascinated by circus companies. I don’t mean the Barnum and Bailey three-ring extravaganzas, but rather the little home-grown circuses that would tour various countrysides where I lived – tinkers in Ireland, gypsy bands on the continent, Indian, Chinese and especially Southeast Asian street circus-theater. I also remember asking myself, “Yes, but what are they saying with such-and-such an act?” It turns out that, with Gravity and Other Myths, the company members say a great deal. They do so by radically going beyond typical circus acts and deepening our experience of relationship through sharing their humanity and care for each other while pushing themselves to physical extremes.
Director Darcy Grant helped me understand why they are so damn good. First about their technique, Grant makes a case for the young “hungry” acrobat who reaches the peak of both physical conditioning and mental focus quite early. Much sooner than artists from other disciplines – certainly actors have to grow into being equipped with their emotional suitcase of human experiences. He describes the “sweet spot” of acrobatic art where spine, muscles, and will are all at their pinnacle level and the instrument is still totally fearless.
All this was in evidence their opening night performance.
The show starts in darkness and silence. Forms begin to emerge, discovered lying on the ground. It might have been a yoga class in a final pose, svasana. Or it might have been a theater workshop where actors-in-training were being asked to tune into their own breath awareness. Both images are apt. This is how an open process begins where members invite us the audience to witness the very construction of their work.
2018 Spoleto Festival USA
May 25 – June 10, 2018
14 George Street, Charleston, SC
Details and tickets
“Backbone,” the show’s title, is an image that conjures up both structural integrity and the courage or will to stand up emotionally under pressure. Each scene of the performance is set up as an original exercise or improvisation that explores both each individual’s strength and breaking point. Pails of burnt-red sand are poured out over the acrobats and across the stage floor. Wooden poles of various lengths are lined up on the floor then balanced on foreheads, and a pile of rocks are carried from here to there. These become physical props with a utilitarian function where sand for instance not only demarks a performing space, grounding the performers, it also provides a medium like rosin to absorb sweat. Sand, wood and rocks also aid these explorers move through a deeply spiritual meditation of trust, emotional nakedness, and connectedness.
The members of the group change tempi, building each exercise to climactic effect that often leave the audience gasping. They pull each other and those pails across the sand to create mazes or religious labyrinths. The pails, put over their heads, become funny blindfold-helmets and force them to build their human towers by touch and human articulations alone. “Ready?” “Ready.” Suddenly bodies are being swung as human hammocks and tossed across space. Their “ready” becomes a mantra.
There were moments where with big grins the company members showed a light touch, even humor, but their tenderness and extreme focus were what caught our attention and, at times, felt heartbreaking. The performers forced themselves in repeated back flips until exhausted they were brought to their knees. There was never any bravura, only honest work. Often one member of the troupe would stand beside another and assist either by physical touch or simply by verbal encouragement to try. Try!
The final image went back to a very simple metaphor. The rocks that each had carried around, almost cradling them from time to time, became each acrobat’s final challenge of strength. In a long line across the front of the stage, each performer held a rock straight out at arm’s length. One by one, the performers, already exhausted by the demands placed on them in act after act, held up their rocks in one last competitive task. Arms shook. Tears pricked eyes. Each one would finally put their boulder down and walk off. How much can we endure?
Plenty, and it’s in the attempt that humanity reveals itself.
Sandwiched between opening ceremony and Backbone, we grabbed the opportunity to experience Carlo Colla and Sons Marionette Company from Italy. Performing their family show The Pied Piper, we were lucky to experience this with many children who had brought their grown-ups to the theater.
I counted ten puppeteers although an eleventh one was credited, and they manipulated over 410 beautifully-carved and costumed puppets, including assorted dogs and cats and an army of rats.
The company served the work up speaking English, although some of the singing was clearly delivered by Italian voices. The show worked best when the Italians were singing or when the puppets were manipulated to underscored music. The script, clearly a translation, was a little clunky and by the end sadly degenerated into heavy-handed moral edification.
At its best was a scene of mayor and councilmen who were dodging and scheming to get out of a deal to pay the Piper for ridding the fair town of Hamlin of rats. The caricatures of these doddering fools, passing the buck so to speak and alternating between false heroic poses and shuffling obsequiousness bore some resemblance to what passes for political governing these days.
The physical work was highly inventive and certain characters were given delightful specificity. The mayor patting his stomach or drumming his fingers on the table. The “singing” puppets jiggled their mouths both open and side to side as if quivering from strong operatic vibrato. The puppet chorus, beating time as they sang, seemed to be conducting themselves. The rat infestation scene was a marvel: rats clambered up table legs, others ran in a long line along the floor, and one particularly pesky varmint got caught in the hair of a character and clung on no matter how he or another character helper tried to bat it away.
Checking in with a local audience member, Brooks Traugott, aged nine, summed up her response with “Beautifully, actually, and very elegant.” (Brooks will be appearing in a theatrical adaptation of The Jungle Book at the Dock Theatre later this summer.)
Quite so. The beauty of the set, its proscenium façade and tiny footlights, and many rolls of painted scenery, were enhanced further by the ingenious lighting representing a single day in the town of Hamlin, the jewel of Saxony. I shan’t tell you the ending, but I promise there are at least two miracles that occur. Can you guess?
Come on down y’all, and in between excellent features of Spoleto Festival, don’t be limited to just sights, sounds and smells. Fulfill your senses with a city tour by Dustin of Charleston Culinary Tours. He shall take you to the best She-crab soup, shrimp and grits, and oysters on the half shell (for that I’ll say you can’t beat Ivan Senior and Junior serving up a dozen-plate at Raw Oyster Bar’s happy hour menu.)
What’s not to like in Charleston? Dustin will tell you, “Despite all the ways men who will dress up a certain local creature with the gilded title of Palmetto bug, the most fearsome thing in Charleston is – “
Can you guess?
The Pied Piper: one hour and thirty minutes including one intermission
Backbone: approximately one hour and fifteen minutes