If the opening weekend of Spoleto Festival USA dug deep to the roots of cultural identity, the following days have seen those roots break through. Across disciplines, artists homed in on the places in which our sense of self is fixed, or from which it is wrenched, often revealing how memory bridges where we are from and who we are.
For dramatic starters, the ebullient Shakespeare’s Globe three-fer of Comedy of Errors, Pericles, and Twelfth Night was thus programmed around the concept of the refugee, and was by the company’s own account moved by Brexit to do so. Following the misadventures of those flung far from home, all three plays hinge upon accidental tourists, washed up on distant shores by dint of shipwrecks, and often cloaking their true identity to navigate strange lands.
One wandering soul after the other bemoans lost loves and lands, their grief fixed firmly in memories they cannot shake. Even so, the eight-member company makes antic sport of their travails, switching characters, regaling audiences through song and sight gags, and going full speed ahead to power that famed iambic pentameter. Musings on nature versus nurture, as well as the ever-shifting notion of identity, are met with cracking tunes, hilarious wordplay and swordplay, and frequently masterful acting that coaxes the comedic out of many a line.
From those mirthful shores, the festival shifts to the famously tough terrain of Gaza for Israeli filmmaker/director Amos Gitai’s hard-hitting, soul-searching Letter to a Friend in Gaza. It takes on the topic with unflinching eye, availing of topographical, journalistic, and historically reenacted footage; onstage dialogues; the ruminative, poignant verses of writers including Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and Israeli Arab scribe Emile Habibi; and a letter to a German friend penned by Albert Camus, which inspired the piece.
Verse and text is delivered in Hebrew, Arabic, and English, with actors seated around or standing near a long table manned with mics, sharing Palestinian recollections of lost homes and farms and conversations between Israeli fathers and daughters on the past actions that have resulted in today’s intractable present. The sum total of the discourse is memory, which grants individuals purchase on place, one that remains and informs identity long after the physical land is lost.
A stirring, transcendent work billed as music theater, Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles led Gaillard patrons on an a capella religious pilgrimage by way of the transcendent collective timbres of some 40 members of Westminster Choir. Portraying Roman Catholics on a spiritual trek along the Camino de Santiago, the hundreds-mile-long road to northwest Spain to capital of Galicia, their sights are set on worshipping at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, and the ensuing self-redemption.
Down the Gaillard aisles trail the choir’s male members, with women rising from audience seats in full song to join them, together alighting the stage. There, they time and again traverse its span, moving en masse before a massive backdrop projecting colors such as the rosy sunrise glow or twilight. They press on, kneeling, hobbling, and laboring through town and mountain, sounding forth as they keep on, subtly stripped of individual trappings along the way to emerge as a white-clothed whole.
Four movements mete out the dramatic arc of their journey, folding in verse in Greek, Latin, Spanish, German, English and more — the clamorous, competing tones of hardship, the distinct and plaintive voices of penitence, the chants of hope, and the ultimate harmonic rejoice of spiritual transformation. “Changed by the journey, face and soul alike,” they return from the sacred place to whence they came.
No work fixed itself in place in quite the way of City Symphonies, which unleashed the sonic onslaught that is life in the city by way of three works by composer Michael Gordon in collaboration with filmmaker Bill Morrison, capturing in sound and moving image that driving, pummelling, relentless urban charge that so propels each place.
In Gotham, the churn and industry of New York City blares forth in pounding brass and screeching strings, with archival footage of Central Park when herds once loped in Sheep’s Meadow and construction workers dangled perilously on steel girders. Dystopia delivers dissonant Tinsel Town, amped up and slowed down alongside highway congestion and protracted refuse-sorting, visual water torture decrying the American wasteland. El Sol Caliente whips up the manmade frenzy and natural forces of Miami Beach, with shots of surf-sideshow attractions, glamour pusses, and hurricane wreckage.
Like the fallout of city living, nerves of some patrons were clearly fraying by the end of the evening, spent from the powerfully on-point, suitably punishing, sonic maelstrom of metropolitan America. Myself, I found sonic balm in my next scheduled show, the soul- and psyche-soothing, exquisitely bluegrass-based Punch Brothers at Cistern Yard. Reminding me of my own place in my hometown of Charleston, they shared their love of this city, along with some songs inspired or somewhat written here, among them “Julep,” which characterizes heaven as porch-rocking with that whisky-sugar-mint Southern mainstay, underscoring just why I quit the big city for home.
Conversely, Rebellion in Greenery, part of the Music in Time series, starts off with three lush, healing works that capture the inherent musicality of Mother Nature, as conducted by Joe Kennedy. From Unknown Silences by Pauline Oliveros, which peppers the Woolfe Street Playhouse room with musicians who intermittently plunk and trill and creak, immersing me in a deep and breathing forest of sound. This was followed by Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s serene and meditative Ro and Britta Bystrom’s Rebellion in Greeney, which celebrated the wild persistence of the natural world, as evidenced every riotous spring.
The program then pivoted from these three female composers to share an altogether different sense of place by way of 30: An American Kaleidoscope, a composition from festival favorite Stephen Prutsman. With a string quartet and audio, the score folds in a jam-packed, ever-shifting pastiche of American-made numbers — from “Over the Rainbow” to “Blue Moon” to “Are you Experienced?” — strung together by violins, viola, cello to serve up what it sounds like to be an American.
And, finally, the inimitable choreographer Bill T. Jones covered artistic ground in three works for his Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company. Propelled by narrative, two of them drawn from deeply personal connections, each of the three works is punctuated time and again by arriving and departing, settlement and dislocation, sometimes by choice and sometimes tragically otherwise.
I was fortunate to see the works in succession, the ideal way in which to experience Jones’s current approach. This involves first-person stories, told in crisp, clear voices by the company members as they pass the microphone between one another to relay portions of the story. While doing this, dancers move together about the stage, visually progressing the story, peeling off in gestural snippets to realize what is being said, often accompanied by striking vocals.
Often, the dancers incorporate large jigsaw-like foam panels that form structures, which the dancers connect and erect into buildings, creating doors and windows through which they peer or pass, walls with cut-out ledges on which they rest, lean-tos under which they crouch. It is the ever-shifting tableau of movement from place to place, mirroring that of the stories relayed.
Analogy/Dora: Tramontane (2015) follows the flight and resolve of a Holocaust survivor. She recounts her days as a young girl fleeing the Germans during the onset, eruption and ending of World War II, moving from one home to another to find her place, deciding whether or not to conceal her Jewish identity to do so.
Analogy/Lance: Pretty aka the Escape Artist (2016) is the story of Jones’s nephew, a charismatic dancer fallen prey to drugs and flash in the 1990s. He vogues and vamps and sparkles, dashing from New York to London to Paris in search of the limelight — and relays his escapades with less-than-credible memory.
Analogy Ambros: The Emigrant (2017) finds its source in a story by W.G. Sebald. In it, a German emigre named to America named Ambros travels the world with his ward, Cosmo, a wealthy, eccentric young man who circles the globe to gamble. Keeping a diary, Ambros aims to remember those places they — Jerusalem, Constantinople and elsewhere — that come together as their life.
Throughout these three works and many others in this year’s festival, it is memory that fixes wayward souls in places that have eluded them, constructed again for us all by way of the highest caliber of contemporary artistic expression. And, like every year, Spoleto gathers places the world over here in Charleston, shedding vital light on whatever place its patrons know as home.
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