Music and dance at Spoleto

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Planners at Spoleto Festival USA weren't caught off-guard when Charleston's largest performing arts venue, Gaillard Auditorium, called in absent until renovations are complete for 2015. But it would have been surprising if the first year without the Gaillard went off entirely without a hitch.

It didn't. The Festival called the TD Arena into service, where the College of Charleston Cougars play basketball into April. Even halving the arena, Spoleto had plenty of seats to sell for their main attractions. They built a stage and added chairs to the floor, also working on the acoustics. Music that I heard in the hall sounded so good that I suspect the place had hosted concerts before.

Rosanne Cash (photo by Deborah Feingold)
  • Rosanne Cash (photo by Deborah Feingold)

The serious problems were visual, affecting the dance performances. People seated to the sides could see offstage into the wings of the stage on the opposite side, but sometimes they couldn't see all of what was happening onstage. Probably not a big deal when the Punch Brothers or Rosanne Cash performed, since they sang and played toward the front and center of the stage. Compagnie Käfig and the Ballet Flamenco de Andalucía used all of the stage for their dance performances, including the problematical sides and the upstage.

Folks down at floor level in the makeshift orchestra level also had sightline issues. Whether you were near the stage, looking up at sharper angle, or further back, looking over more and more rows of people, you would likely have difficulties seeing the surface of the stage or the feet of the performers. Not the best conditions for appreciating a hard-stomping flamenco troupe.

The press corps were seated up in the center sections of the permanent stands. Perched not too far above stage level, we saw and heard perfectly - but at a distance, no nearer to the stage than a middling seat in Gaillard's old balcony. This sort of distance, of course, is accepted as prime seating at venues like the Time Warner or Verizon Amphitheater, so we were surrounded by hard-core fans when Rosanne Cash filled the hall to near-capacity. These fanatics, you won't be surprised to learn, felt duty-bound to whoop it up as loudly as possible as soon as they could recognize what their idol was about to sing and whoop some more each time she was done.

I liked Rosanne, but I didn't get the fanaticism. She has a wonderful band, led by John Leventhal on lead guitar and backup vocals, yet the rockin' exploits of the musicians drew nary a whoop or even a light wave of applause. Rosanne's vocals were honest, sincere, textured with maturity, and her low end is flavored with a Cash Family richness that Papa Johnny could be proud of. The rest of the voice is unexceptional country, styled with far less pyrotechnics or filigree than spew from today's superstars, and she doesn't always use her assets to best advantage. "Burn Down This Town," "Modern Blue," and "Tennessee Black Top Box" drove the hardest, but "Motherless Children" was fueled entirely by empathy - not experience like the Odetta version. "Ode to Billy Joe" was Cash storytelling at its best, as Rosanne made the lyrics count, but she never really delved down into the sweet spot of her voice when she evoked the Tallahatchee Bridge.

Sitting closer might have helped me catch the Cash mystique, but distance was more of a concern when Ballet Flamenco de Andalucía took the stage. Their costumes were eye-popping, the five-piece band had all the Spanish duende you could wish for, but when the dancers worked themselves into a floor-punishing frenzy - exclamations and encouragements sparking from the performers - I wished I were closer so I could see the passion on their faces.

The cooler, more geometrical stylings of Compagnie Käfig were best suited to the TD Arena experience. I wasn't particularly excited by their Correria, which sported the individual dancers' verve and climaxed with some world-class head spinning. We'd seen those credentials certified when Käfig made their Spoleto debut in 2002. Artistic director Mourad Merzouki's Agwa was a different matter, fresh, mesmerizing, and memorable. During intermission, the stage was set up with vertical rows of transparent cups, carefully aligned with Yoann Tivoli's lighting design. Dancers stacked, demolished, and reconfigured these cups as the choreography unfolded, occasionally pouring water from one cup to another.

The wonder of it all was that, amid all the hurly-burly and the Brazilian street dancing, hardly a drop of the precious water was spilt as the cups went through all these changes. Only a single horizontal row of cups remained before the dancers took their final bows - with enough water left for each dancer to have a well-earned drink.

If you were keen on interdisciplinary works and meta meanings, Lucky Plush Productions was the hottest ticket on Spoleto's dance card. The Chicago-based ensemble's presentation of The Better Half was a mix of theatre and dance, scripted and choreographed by Leslie Buxbaum Danzig, Julia Rhoads, and the dancers, with the sound design by Mikhail Fiksel very much in the background.

Lucky Plush
  • Lucky Plush

Theatrically, Lucky Plush purported to retell the story of Gaslight, but exactly how and why were up for grabs. The actor-dancers sort of shambled onto the stage at the Emmett Robinson Theatre as if they were about to begin a rehearsal or a reading stage performance, yet in the middle of the rehearsal/performance, the actor who narrated and read the stage directions abandoned his seat behind the script and became one of the cast, taking on the role of Detective Rough.

Odder than that were the character names; for although the narrator (Timothy Heck) clearly referenced the 1944 film starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, and Angela Lansbury; the protagonists, Mr. and Mrs. Manningham (Adrian Danzig and Rhoads), are names that only occur in the original stage version by Patrick Hamilton (also known as Angel Street). Same with Rough. Whether some hidden meaning lurks here or Plush wasn't lucky dealing with MGM's copyrights, I couldn't say.

Nor could anyone who hadn't watched Gaslight recently authoritatively answer what the film or play was about. As actors and dancers, the Lucky Plush ensemble are capable performers, but the script of The Better Half wasn't substantial enough to sustain interest even as a deconstruction of Gaslight, and the choreography wasn't challenging enough to impress. Francisco Aviña as Nancy and Meghann Wilkinson as Elisabeth rounded out the talented cast, standing around idly most of the time.

In short, Lucky Plush effort was well-framed to spawn ardent admirers, furious detractors, and passionate debates between the two. They're a perfect fit for Spoleto.

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