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Jazz Divas, Dance, and Grim Puppets

For 17 days, Charleston is world's arts hub

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Subtle new winds are blowing into the historic harbor of Charleston. Women have moved boldly to the forefront this year, while visual arts have been further marginalized, barely worth mentioning. So much happens at Spoleto -- over 125 performances during the 17 days -- that the festival always seems to be in transition, like Charleston weather.Charge up some tickets at www.spoletousa.org, escape the fumes of Charlotte motorsports, and immerse yourself in one of the great cultural events on our planet. Or just head down to the Port City and freewheel it. Aside from the main events, there's the awesome Piccolo Spoleto satellite festival with an additional 700 performances and events all over town -- and on their www.piccolospoleto.com website.

Here are the prime events we're most looking forward to, plus a few we're ruefully missing.

Jazz
Women reached parity in last year's jazz lineup with two of the four headliners. For 2003, they've made a clean sweep. Most auspicious is the visitation of Abbey Lincoln, in conversation at the Albert Simons Center (May 30) and in concert at Gaillard Municipal Auditorium (5/31). Standing on the shoulders of Billie Holiday, Lincoln builds on the legacy, bringing new meaning and drama to such old standards as "It's Magic," "Laugh, Clown," and "Little Niles." And like Lady Day, she's a formidable songwriter.

Perhaps the most intriguing gig in this year's Wachovia Jazz lineup is the sensational Brazilian songstress Monica Salmaso, who appears for a pair of open-air concerts at the West Lake Amphitheatre in Mt. Pleasant (5/23) and under the magnolias at The Cistern (5/24). You'll hear the purity of Astrud Gilberto lightly dusted with a cabaret singer's depth. Rounding out this year's Spoleto jazz are two groundbreaking appearances by female jazz artists who don't sing! Whoa.

Fleet-fingered -- with pronounced funk tendencies -- Lynne Arriale leads her piano trio into The Cistern (5/25) with an additional gig at the Wild Dunes Pavilion at Isle of Palms (5/26). Lyrical, hard-swinging Jessica Williams plays without accompaniment -- or amplification -- at Simons Center(6/6-7).

Theatre
It's heading to storied Guthrie Theatre next season in Minneapolis. But first, James Maxwell's adaptation of Pride and Prejudice makes its American debut at Spoleto -- in the original production from Ireland's acclaimed Gate Theatre. The Jane Austen masterwork is in residence at historic Dock Street Theatre throughout the festival (5/23-6/8).

Back for its fifth Spoleto USA appearance, Circus Flora is being promoted under the theatre category although the show remains under a red-and-white big top. The company's newest work, Da Capo, features original live music and a love story set in a Balkan bazaar. Camped at the waterfront in Ansonborough Fields, the one-ring Euro-circus is perfect family fare, with special "Circus by the Sea" tickets good for a seat under the big top plus a visit to the nearby SC Aquarium. But hurry, hurry! Flora is only in town through the second weekend of Spoleto (5/23-6/1).

On the smaller stage at Albert Simons, Tbilisi Municipal Theatre Studio brings us The Battle of Stalingrad (5/29-6/1), a puppet story so grim it's not recommended for children! It's a memorial to the war-torn city besieged by the Nazis -- and a love story told through cinema, poetry, art, music, and some, um, rather bizarre puppets.

Dance
Spoleto USA's dance card is perennially the festival's strongest suit. If you're at all susceptible to the charms of ballet and modern dance, grab every ticket you can. National Ballet of Canada takes over Gaillard Auditorium for the opening weekend (5/24-25), offering George Balanchine's Apollo and company director James Kudelka's Four Seasons, set to the Vivaldi classic.

Meanwhile, smaller contemporary dance will invade the Simons Center. Israeli choreographer Yasmeen Godder brings her troupe of five dancers to perform HALL (5/23-26), opening a window onto contemporary Israel by evoking the history of an abandoned dancehall.

While the Garden Theatre, home of the defunct Footprints in the Garden series, goes to seed in 2003, elegant Sottile Theatre hangs on with one event. Should be a good one as Shen Wei Dance Arts presents its version of Rite of Spring (Part 1) and a dreamy Folding with layers of painting, sculpture, and Chinese opera blended in.

Opera
At Gaillard and Dock Street, opera is always a big-ticket Spoleto attraction. Some of the Palmetto State's most esteemed dignitaries and other hobnobbing swells will surely be in attendance when Lakme kicks off the festival in the big auditorium (5/23, 26, 30, 6/6). There's little plot to divert us from Leo Delibes' delicious score, but hopefully there'll be plenty of exotic color in this tragic tale of a British officer beguiled by a Brahmin priestess. Lyubov Petrova is being touted in the celebrated title role on the strength of last year's performance as Despina in Mozart's Cosi. Maybe this year she'll make an impression.

Plot thickens as one of Handel's greatest operas, Tamerlano, invades Dock Street in all its barbaric glory and baroque strangeness (5/24, 26, 29, 31; 6/2, 5, 7). It's about the conquering Emperor of the Tartars' lust for the captive Turkish Sultan's daughter, packing three hours of mighty passion and regal intrigue. But watch out! The title role was originally played by a castrato.

Music
It's a simple drill, really. Nab tickets for as many of lunchtime Bank of America Chamber Music concerts as you can (5/23-6/8). Each of these world-class Dock Street Theatre presentations, hand-picked and introduced by the personable Charles Wadsworth, is certain to delight -- with 2003 guest composer Ned Rorem a frequent visitor. Next on your wish list, put the heavenly Westminster Choir Concerts under Joseph Flummerfelt's baton at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke & St. Paul (5/29, 6/7).

If your taste runs to the tonal, check out the two evening Spoleto Festival Orchestra concerts (5/28, 6/1) or the pre-dinner Intermezzi series at Grace Episcopal Church (5/25, 27; 6/2, 3, 6). Care to venture into the wilds of Gyorgy Ligeti, a Samuel Beckett radio play scored by Morton Feldman, or a Pocket Symphony? John Kennedy's Music in Time series at the Simons Center is the ticket (5/24, 28; 6/1, 4).

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