How often we, in our silos, get stuck in our own work and schedules. Even more, artists miss opportunities to be fed and inspired by the interplay of other arts forms. If released, dancers see dance, musicians attend concerts, painters prowl galleries, and theater-makers (if they clamber out of their mole-holes of rehearsal halls) scurry in the dark to catch their friends in other shows.
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Here at Spoleto, I am reminded again of the vitality gained in the interplay of works and artists across art forms.
Coming out of the world premiere of Roots by the company 1927 that specializes in theatric invention, we’d just watched a piece incorporating animation, home videos, mime, and music with instruments such as bowed saws, whirly-gigs, and kazoos. From a garden across the street poured forth music from an outdoor concert by Esperanza Spalding, a jazz bassist and vocalist who refers to herself as specializing in (among other things) dream talk, demonic therapy, and cat tongue.
Expect the unexpected. But even the expected can be so amazing and brilliant – and so eclectically assembled – that “forms” and “genres” can be reimagined, as eyes, ears and hearts are recalibrated. So it was I was electrified by two programs, music and by dance, on the same day.
Chamber Music Program II
One of the best things to take in at Spoleto is a program from the chamber concert series sponsored by Bank of America that boasted this year 11 different programs in the space of 17 days. With the force of nature Geoff Nuttall, programming, introducing and playing in at least one number in each program with his supremely gifted St Lawrence String Quartet, one is never disappointed.
I learn more from Nuttall about how to make good theater than from just about any other artist, and I was back to learn again.
Lesson number one: programming. Be bold. “Where else can you find on the same program,” Nuttall quipped, “ a Beethoven pianos sonata and a ‘rap’ featuring a countertenor and orchestral ensemble?”
Program II was a gem of Nuttall programming and style, and PBS was right there with us to film it all. (It will be aired in a special program series on classical music starting this Fall.)
Another lesson-in-theatre is Nuttall’s generosity of spirit in welcoming and bringing in the audience and introducing his guest artists. He never talks down to his audience, but he doesn’t get all stuffy either, and his enthusiasm is infectious. He reaches out to defy Dock Street’s proscenium divide, leaning forward to the audience as if telling his best friend a favorite-kept secret. He taps his feet, grins, and is the most ardently cheering fan of his fellow musicians.
Pianist Stephen Prutsman led the program playing Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in C-sharp minor, better known as the “Moonlight Sonata.” Who said music was only music and not theatre? This piece even had its own backdrop setting in the permanent curtain painting of Charleston Harbor, complete with glowing moon. Before he began, Prutsman sat to let the stillness settle and the atmospheric readiness take hold for what was indeed that “rip your heart out” first movement.
Music can be a respite in the day, a pause to contemplate the greater movement of the universe, or a journey of the heart. Prutsman gave us all three in the first movement, with his left hand bringing us back with the insistent stammering chord repetition while the right hand rolled on in transfigured beauty. His playing is some of the most beautiful piano music I have ever heard.
Bassist and composer Doug Balliett returned this year with a new composition, written for countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, another returnee. (It’s at places like Spoleto that artists meet, and artistic partnerships are made.) The premiering piece uses spoken word, instrumental music and countertenor to tell the story of Echo and Narcissus in a most unusual update of Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Is it rap? Spoken poetry? Passages of prose riding on an underscore “carpet” of music?
Dense as the text proved to be at times, it was in turn witty and caustic, profound and lyrical, and certainly the piece held us rapt.
How does breath emotionally color a thought? We were given a demonstration and lesson in breathing that should be taken to heart by every singer and actor by the young soloist Justin Austin Smith on oboe. He played a composition written by his father Larry Alan Smith, and though called “Three Angularities,” this contemporary work was anything but intellectual or sterile. Instead, every long line felt it carried such profound emotional clarity.
Speaking of emotional clarity, ending the program, the St Lawrence String Quartet schools me every time in understanding more deeply the meaning of ensemble work and importance of intentional clarity. On this program, they played Franz Joseph Haydn’s “Emperor” Quartet. Yes, we all think we know it, and he even had us humming it before the musicians played.
But hang on for the ride with these folk. As they pass a musical theme between instruments, suddenly the compositional intention is laid out with great specificity. They have such fun. They breathe as one. Whether it’s the jubilant and raucous first movement, or later when what seems to be a stately procession turns into something young and spritely, the music shifts and shifts again, never losing us, taking us by the hand and guiding us into a dark emotional forest, but then back finally to C-major and the galloping “happy place” of the stretch home. (All too often the “music” of a play is muddied in delivery or was never realized in the first place. Make note.)
What the Day Owes the Night
Nothing could have prepared me for the intoxicating, brilliant, and profoundly spiritually moving performance of Compagnie Hervé Koubi.
When Koubi walked out on the Spoleto stage for the first time ever, he looked shy, humble, even fragile, as he read from a folded paper of notes. He shared his life story in halting English. Born and raised in Cannes, it was many years before he learned that his ancestry came from Northern Africa. His grandfather spoke only Arabic. His mother was Muslim; he learned even later his father was Jewish.
Since 2009, he began gathering male performers, mostly street dancers, first Algerian and Burkinabé, until he had created an ensemble for his work that includes also Moroccan, French, Italian, Israeli and Palestinian.
This was a man who chose to look at and soak up every art, dance and spiritual vocabulary. There are seemingly no limits to his means. Hand and head spinning from street dancing of hip hop, acrobatic tumbling from circus, Sufi Spinning, port de bras from modern dance and ballet, Matisse cut outs, Arabic prayer gestures, trust exercises from theater, body carrying and balancing from contact improvisation, the language of iconographic war photos, and martial arts. It became hard to tell what was precisely choreographed, what momentary solo work was improvised, and what became both a test of endurance and movement as trance.
Perhaps we recognized the styles, perhaps not, it didn’t matter. The dancers costumed only in white pants with overlaid skirt material that billowed when spinning and bare chested move from a clustered pile on the floor center stage, they begin to reach up then fall, then reach up again, a little higher each time. They rise, tumble, spin, work in twos and threes then synchronized ensemble. All to the hypnotic sonorities of music from a world that long ago knew no boundaries or distinctions.
The dancers catch each other from falling, sometime from great heights and backwards, carry each other across the floor. They never stop moving for over an hour. The technical virtuosity (say of the head spinners) gets some applause near the beginning as the audience begins to fall under the trance of something spellbinding and emotionally deeply spiritual that goes way beyond performing.
Phrases so often heard in workshops and earnest presentations – conflict resolution, conversations on race, religious understanding, anti-poverty programs, and male support groups — sound simplistic, feeble, and even counter-indicated or useless. What we were witnessing in the moment was communal transformation.
If we are to heal the world – and indeed we as artists need to help do just that – we need to experience Hervé Koubi and his Compagnie. We come together where movement becomes prayer, prayer becomes incantation, and incantation became ecstasy.
Chamber Music Program II: approximately one hour without intermission
What the Day Owes the Night by Compagnie Hervé Koubi: approximately one hour and 15 minutes without intermission