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Spoleto Overview 2: Dispatches from the wilderness

'The Journey'

In his virtual production "The Journey," illusionist Scott Silven tells the story of a young Scottish boy who goes into the wilderness. Spoleto Festival USA/Provided

If Spoleto Festival USA 2021's giddy, historic opening days roused Charleston from its pandemic-induced deep cultural sleep, its following days continued to coax us back in to a world of reflective connection.

It is, after all, hard to say what any of us have really been up to in all these months, or exactly where we have been for that matter. Yes, we can point to home, evidenced in the carefully curated walls or shelves of our Zoom backdrops.

But that best-face-forward postage stamp seldom included a backstage pass to the true terrain of pandemic existence, the obscure, uneasy chambers of our beating hearts. 

Artists and audiences alike have been casting around in this hidden wilderness, as behavioral defaults and givens were chucked out of our Perma-sealed windows.

Ballet Under the Stars (copy)

Calvin Royal III as Apollo in George Balanchine's "Apollo." The piece was performed during "Ballet Under the Stars" for Spoleto Festival USA 2021, taking place on a custom-built stage at the College of Charleston's Rivers Green. Spoleto Festival USA/Provided

Take the five dancers from New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. They came together at Rivers Green for "Ballet Under the Stars," reclaiming one of the most primal of human impulses that was wrenched from so many lives, physical intimacy.

Two by two, they leaned and supported, embraced and elevated, reconnecting with one another through tender gestures and epic lifts.

In George Balanchine’s 1928 “Apollo,” American Ballet Theatre’s Calvin Royal III  embodied the god of music and New York City Ballet’s Unity Phelan the muse of music and dance, joyfully reviving both art forms.

Then, in the murky, mournful center of the evening, we faced down darker days. Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon's duet, "This Bitter Earth," is set to the 2010 remix of Dinah Washington’s 1960 song that merged with Max Richter and Clyde Otis's “On the Nature of Daylight.”

Draped in black and green, Royal reappears, this time with American Ballet Theatre's Isabella Boylston, in a somber, private coming together. As Washington's earthy vocals rued the betrayal of the body and the fleeting nature of life and love, the dancers fully pull us in. Entwined in their shared grief, they bear the impossible weight of the human condition by holding fast to one another and to this bitter, yet fruitful Earth.

Boylston returned to the stage for the finale, all aglitter, with New York City Ballet's Joseph Gordon. Decked out in Russian finery, the pair sprung into exquisite action for “Diamonds,” a pas de deux from George Balanchine’s “Jewels." A ballet crown jewel in its own right, it is a rarity to see it performed by the stars of such mega-wattage on the Rivers Green stage.

Banishing the existential with the sparkling glory of their artistry, the dancers marked the triumphant return of ballet itself. Having weathered dark days and darkened stages, ballet's brightest lights were primed to shine with living, breathing magnificence under a velvet sky.

Paul Wiancko and Ayane Kozasa

Paul Wiancko (left) and Ayane Kozasa during the chamber music series at Dock Street Theatre during Spoleto Festival USA. Photo by William Struhs. Spoleto Festival USA/provided

During Program 6 of Spoleto's chamber music series, cellist and composer Paul Wiancko found his way home, too. His 2015 "American Haiku" composition weaves in both his Japanese mother's musical traditions, with nods to the koto Japanese string instrument, with those of his American father, who raised him on bluegrass and Appalachian fiddling.

In one far-ranging, mesmerizing work that roams the globe, he aimed to resolve "an identity crisis wrapped in music" on his "search for home."

The artist has found that home. For Spoleto, he performed the work with violist Ayane Kozasa, sharing that the two married since last he took the Dock Street Theater stage and assuring us that we would come to love her as much as he does.

But the roving continued to play out elsewhere. It could be said that The Cookers concert at Cistern Yard was one vast wilderness exploration. Seven jazz all-stars formed the group — trumpeter and band leader David Weiss, drummer Billy Hart, saxophonist Bill Harper, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, pianist George Cables, saxophonist Donald Harrison and bassist Cecil McBee — each embarking on his own solo improvisational journey before our very eyes and ears. 

The Cookers (copy)

On Saturday, June 5, 2021, at Cistern Yard, Spoleto's Wells Farge jazz concert demonstrated the innovation of the jazz all-stars who form the band The Cookers. Leigh Webber/Spoleto Festival USA/Provided 

These are far from fledgling voyagers, it should be noted, having in aggregate charted centuries of miles charted in unknown artistic lands. Case in point: They launched the concert with Harper's tellingly titled “The Call of the Wild and Peaceful Heart. ”

With each song, with compositions from the musicians, ample space was made for individual artistic excursions, coaxing new departures during their fellow artists' works.

They were grounded as well, with a depth of emotion that was balm on a steamy Charleston evening. McBee's reflective "Peacemaker" featured Henderson's plaintive solo, as did Harper's gorgeous ballad, "If Only I Could See." The evening's ultimate, jubilant piece was Hubbard's "The Core," with Harper's tenor sax sending us off into the night with his deftly delivered notes of hope.

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Also at Cistern Yard, The Wood Brothers went on their own wild trip, ably fusing folk, country, funk and rock to often pick at tricky questions on death and life. Sure, it started rooted enough, with the selection of songs from their latest album "Kingdom In My Mind" and many crowd favorites, delivered by the impressively efficient trio of guitarist Oliver Wood, bassist Chris Wood and musician-magician Jano Rix, who with some sleight of hand was powering both the drums and the keyboard.

The Wood Brothers are the first to admit that they can get lost. Oliver Wood drolly copped to not knowing on the night before what day of the week it was, and deeming that a positive, to get so lost in the music. 

The Wood Brothers

The Wood Brothers performed in Cistern Yard during Spoleto Festival USA 2021. Photo: Leigh Webber/Spoleto Festival USA/Provided

They offered advice for those who may be similarly without bearings, with the number "Sing About It" suggesting in an unapologetically Sesame Street kind of a way that "If you get lost, what you ought to do is sing." They probed the notion further still in "Who the Devil," posing the question, "Do ya gotta be lost to be found?" with Oliver Wood marveling at Cistern Yard as "this creepy tree place." 

But as the evening progressed, the three increasingly hit the road less traveled, swerving into wildly instrumental flights of fancy that showed off the stratospheric musicianship and ranged in vibe from Southern rock-outs to '60s-inflected mystical interludes. Bringing it back down to Earth, they signed off with "The Luckiest Man," hitting home with an apt perspective from a down-on-his-luck narrator who, with a little faith, may not be so down after all.

By then, I was post-catharsis, having joyfully hitched a ride on their driving, lurching, fearless, fantastic trip, relishing both the full-on sonic surges and the unexpected gentle, stolen moments.

In his virtual production "The Journey," performance artist Scott Silven had a great deal to say about the wilderness, making engaging use of his mentalist skills to illuminate how we are all connected, even from our separate, distant laptops.

He wove a narrative centered on a young Scottish boy named Callie who was himself thrust into the wilderness. To spin his tale, Silven goes full mentalist, producing numbers that match those we have just uttered, finding patterns among scattered scraps of paper— and submitting the results as proof of a greater, universal connectedness during these disconnected times.

In a room of Silven's country home, its walls aswirl with projected clouds and maps and such, he drew us deeper into Scotland's roiling, crashing waves and mysterious cairns, assembled mounds of stones, as Callie roamed farther and farther away from all he had known as home.

I won't tell you how it ends with Callie, but suffice it to say that the home and the wild are not as distinct as you may imagine.

Ephrat Asherie

New York City-based Ephrat Asherie performed at the College of Charleston's Rivers Green as part of Spoleto Festival USA 2021. Photo by Willam Struhs. Spoleto Festival USA/provided

Here are the two grafs for the column: At Rivers Green, Ephrat "Bounce" Asherie's travels made for a smoother landing in unknown terrain. In her 2018 piece, "Odeon," the New York-based choreographer softened the urban edges of street and club dance—break, hip hop and voguing—with compositions by Brazilian composer Ernesto Nazareth performed by on-stage musicians who at times joined the dance.

Genially smiling dancers, decked out in artfully coordinated athletic sweats, refined the the rigor of such urban moves, tumbling rather than crashing, stopping short of whipping spins and charged velocity, even mildly feigning fights and pleasantly backing down. This artistic departure was one to Brazil, with Nazareth's classically-leaning music providing percussion while also lending a gentle touch, transforming both the dancers and the dance.

This column goes to print before I will have seen "Two Wings: The Music of Black American in Migration," a work co-produced by Jason Moran and Alicia Hall Moran mining their own families' stories, when they were among the generations who chose the unknown over home.

For many their homes instead became their traditions, the music, the poetry, the recipes, the stories that likely did not take up much space in their bags, occupying instead fortified chambers of the heart. And their course was guided by that great American notion of promise, and perhaps traveling by the light of the moon.

Speaking of which, ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce the winner of this year's ubiquitous visual trope. It is, in fact, the moon. 

It looms in the chamber music backdrop at the Dock Street Theatre, as it has for years, proper and majestic in a night sky over a 17th-century Charleston tableau. 

A lunar-like orb also holds steady above Cistern Yard, lighting the grand clock face on the facade of College of Charleston's Randolph Hall.

Neither ever struck me until this year, when my eyes were repeatedly drawn to them. Silven set me straight. Projecting a shining circle onto the wall inside his Scotland home, he called it the moon, too. From our own scattered homes, we together watched it unfurl into a flowing, glowing line, a continuum traveling along its walls and through time.

Yes, we have found that a wilderness can rail within the very walls of our home. With routines scrapped, with peril as close as one rogue droplet, we have been buffeted by strange new circumstances, left only to, however quietly, howl at the moon.

But we were not alone. The artists were there, too. In their emergence at Spoleto, they time and again expressed both their utter ecstasy in returning to the world and the formidable trial it had been.

As so may pointed out, in words and songs and steps and sleights of hand, too, we have all been lost. Perhaps we can now be found. 

Follow Maura Hogan on Twitter at @msmaurahogan.

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