After more than three weeks of canvassing Charleston with notebooks, video cameras and thesauruses in hand, the 15 students from Syracuse University’s Goldring Arts Journalism Program combined to write some 50,000 words and shoot miles of rehearsal footage over the course of the Spoleto and Piccolo Spoleto festivals. And they still found time to visit Fort Sumter, gawk at the sand castle competition, play some basketball and embark on a citywide shrimp-and-grits showdown. (Go to postandcourier.com/spoleto for complete festival coverage.) Now that they have had a chance to catch their breaths, here are a few of their most memorable (for better and worse) events.
Sure, when the performers of Compagnie XY’s “Le Grand C” effortlessly stacked themselves three people high, I was on the edge of my seat, teetering between uncomfortable fascination and morbid anticipation. But when the troupe piled four stiff bodies atop one another, shaking and slightly swaggering one way or another, there was a shared adrenaline between the audience and performers — spectators clutching onto their partners, eyes and mouths agape expecting the worst. Of all the theater offerings Spoleto presented this year (many of which were sadly lackluster, i.e. a disjointed “Oedipus” and the bland geek-out fest “The Intergalactic Nemesis”), “Le Grand C” was the theatrical jewel. Watching the petite ladies (or even hardy, hunky, muscular men) flip through the air was worth it alone, and no one fell (at least willingly).
While the Punch Brothers provided some memorable moments in their amazing set, J.D. McPherson brought the house down at TD Arena with his throwback rock ’n’ roll charisma. Forcing people of all ages out of their seats, McPherson and company provided one of the best performances I’ve ever seen in person. While not necessarily a style of music that fits everyone’s taste, he made the audience take notice with his guitar licks and wailing voice. Runners-Up: The surprisingly comedic Punch Brothers brought their newgrass style to the TD Arena and rocked with the city of Charleston, and Compagnie Kafig wowed the crowd with its acrobatics, Brazilian fight dancing and pure athleticism.
J.D. McPherson was the best surprise of Spoleto Festival USA. He inspired an impromptu ’50s prom at his rock concert Friday night in TD Arena, where audiences normally keep their seats. I worried that McPherson might lose some energy when Tropical Storm Andrea forced him inside from the Cistern. But he brought out the swinging rebels in the audience, who couldn’t resist twisting to McPherson’s riffs. He got at the very teeth of rock ’n’ roll. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” however, disappointed me. Tom Morris, a brilliant director, killed the show with brilliance. He employed puppet facsimiles of the romantic leads like someone with a sprained ankle demanding crutches. Titania and Oberon in the fairy world benefited from the whimsy of their larger-than-life puppet counter parts, but otherwise, the actors looked like they were merely playing with dolls.
The most pleasant surprise of Spoleto was, for me (a noted misanthrope and perpetual sourpuss), the impromptu engendering of dance along the sides of TD Arena during J.D. MCPherson’s rock-a-sexy performance — a bit of rebellion a la James Dean against the concert’s placement shuffle from the Cistern to the arena, which, in light of Tropical Storm Andrea’s wimping out, felt even more egregious. Though, to be completely honest, I probably would have complained about humidity and bugs had we been at the Cistern, but whatever. I danced like a fool.
“Bullet Catch,” featuring the affable Rob Drummond masterfully shifting the climate of the room from jovial laughter to teeth-gritting tension, had me smiling wide and thoroughly engaged from start to finish. Nothing about the show seemed forced or awkwardly placed, with themes of fate versus free will organically coming to light through a series of captivating sleight-of-hand tricks, as well as the bombastic titular illusion. Piccolo’s “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” on the other hand, awkwardly constructed weak political metaphors out of simplistic pro wrestlers, taking one of the most garishly over-the-top types of American entertainment and rendering it boring and toothless.
Top props at this year’s festivals go to Compagnie XY’s “Le Grand C.” They pushed the boundaries of human performance and agility, leaving me in awe. “Bullet Catch” surprised me most; I was expecting a whole lot of history and maybe a little magic, but left with a racing heart and a new appreciation for interpersonal dynamics. “The Intergalactic Nemesis” and Pamela Z both proved underwhelming, though they were odd enough to make me appreciate having seen them. And the opera doubleheader proved to be the biggest disappointment: Despite the sweet smoothness of the leading voices in both shows, “Mese Mariano” had too weak a plot to keep my attention, and “Le Villi” straddled the line between insensitive and ridiculous.
Admittedly I didn’t catch a whole lot of shows at this year’s Spoleto USA and Piccolo Spoleto festivals. I was looking forward to Gregory Porter, but his show suffered from some awful sound board operation. The next week I got the biggest surprise when I saw the sea of empty seats at Angelique Kidjo’s dance-a-thon powerhouse of a show. I had a great time taking in “Bullet Catch” (the tension! the postmodernism!) and Pure Theatre’s “Clybourne Park” (the difficult questions! the awkward humor!) at Piccolo, which were certainly the two highlights of the festivals and the best experiences I’ll be taking back home with me.
If you think “encores” only happen at pop concerts, you should have seen — and heard — Westminster Choir’s two bonus songs. They sang sacred songs and decent modern pieces beautifully and smoothly, while their Haitian song showed off their wilder characteristics. It quickly became clear why Cathedral Church of St. Luke and St. Paul was so overloaded that the air conditioner couldn’t cool the hall below 80 degrees.
J.D. McPherson. To me it was like prom, but with actual good music, best dates ever — nine of my fellow students — and my funky jeans. (Just to be clear, everything I know about prom is from American teen movies.)
The highlight of my Spoleto experience was watching the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra perform Peteris Vasks’ “Credo” and John Adams’ “Harmonielehre.” The orchestra successfully conveyed a sense of transcendence, which the program notes said Vasks intended to evoke in his work. “Harmonielehre” was more beautiful than inspiring, but an equal testament to conductor John Kennedy’s abilities.
Angelique Kidjo successfully brought a little bit of Africa to Charleston with her mesmerizing concert turned dance party. Her ability to get the audience involved in her performance made all concertgoers feel like rock stars, even if only for a few hours. “Bullet Catch,” on the other hand, failed to be magical. The entire show led up to a “bullet catch” that could be missed if you blinked.
But three performances stick out the most: Angelique Kidjo somehow managing to get a half-empty TD Arena on its feet; the deceptively matronly Patrica Galvan in Ballet Flamenco teasing a few more audience members with her enthusiastic skirt swirling and flashes of lightning-quick stout legs; lastly — the one I haven’t been able to stop talking about — Shantala Shivalingappa. Her coordination of constant foot-stamping moves, complicated hand gestures and those manic-depressive changes in expressions was perfect. Being agile with the lower half of your body and carefully precise with your torso is an insanely impossible task. I walked away with goosebumps.
An explosion of athleticism and control, Compagnie XY’s “Le Grand C” had audiences in Memminger Auditorium on the edge of their seats. Always in awe when they pulled off their acrobatic leaps, and in utter disappointment the few times they fell short of achieving their lofty feats, the audience genuinely reveled in the excitement and playful cheek that was “Le Grand C.”
Dance parties at TD Arena were the highlight of my Spoleto experiences. J.D. McPherson brought honkytonk to the Lowcountry, while Angelique Kidjo brought a message of hope, inspiration and a Beninese soul dance party to the festival. People were up out of their seats for both performances grooving to the beat. Though very different styles of music, the concerts united the festivalgoers in a way that is emblematic of today’s social environment. Jazz Artists of Charleston’s 6th Annual Jazz Series, though not a Spoleto or Piccolo Spoleto event, showcased the talent of Charleston’s jazz artists. For 14 nights, jazz musicians from across the area played various subgenres of jazz, from Latin to Dixieland to a Judy Garland tribute. It was a splendid addition to the other festival events.
My great Spoleto Festival USA surprises were all related somehow to music. Compagnie Käfig and Ballet Flamenco de Andalucía were marvelous, while Punch Brothers and J.D. McPherson made me want to dance. Regarding theater, the promising “Midsummer Night’s Dream” wasn’t what I was expecting. Even though the puppets were beautiful, their role in the play wasn’t clear. However, Piccolo Spoleto’s theater selection was especially interesting. I found plays that made me think (“Hearts Full of Blood”), cry (”Women of Lockerbie”) and laugh (“Teacher in the House: A True Tale of Human Survival”). In addition, the Piccolo art exhibition “Tales Transposed” introduced me to a promising artist that I will follow closely: Nathan Durfee.
Lucia Carmago Rojas