The heavens opened up in more ways than one as Spoleto closed in on its midway mark. But it was not only the rain-soaked plan Bs. This past week, the festival found a clear and insistent frequency on the gospel station. Whether it was scatting or fiddling, immersive theater or hip hop-inflected dance, artist after artist looked upward. In both performance and personal asides, they communicated loud and clear that in art and in life, it’s a God thing.
It’s not hard to get the message about finding religion when the work takes place in a church. Westminster Choir’s resplendent, redemptive Angels had St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church awash in the celestial glow of female voices and heaven-wending compositions. In the concert’s first part, Darkness, the church lights dimmed, cloaking the instrumentalists on the altar in darkness as they began Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Largo from Sonata in C Major, BWV 1005.” Then, an almost-all female chorus proceeded in that dark to join them.
They then got their Gregorian chant going by way of “O choruscans lux stellarum,” the work of 12th-century mystical poet and nun Hildegard von Bingen that considers Christ as starlight. From there, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater” placed Mary front and center.
Part Two, Awakening, led with Abbie Betinis’s “Soyez comme l’oiseaux,” and birdlike, the choir set their sights loftward, streaming back through the church for Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda (Third Group). They fully ascended for Part Three’s Angels, alighting in the church loft for “Lux aeterna” by Z. Randall Stroope and Gabriel Faure’s Requiem, op. 48, “in paradiso,” gloriously filling the church right up to a ceiling made majestic with starlight.
But it wasn’t just the sacred spaces that resounded with cogitations on the great beyond. On a steamy Friday in Cistern Yard, Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder unleashed phenomenal bluegrass, with Skaggs working his mandolin, aiming to “whip that thing like a mule.” Reviving masters like Bill Monroe to “play God music,” he shared stories of Free Will Baptists from Eastern Kentucky and rang out “You Can’t Shake Jesus.” While gamely contending with the evening’s feverish heat, Skaggs mused that it offered renewed incentive to “get right” — and thus avoid even hotter spots in the hereafter.
At the Gaillard, Jazzmeia Horn more than once recognized higher powers, all between virtuosic scatting and somber notes on social justice that she framed as “same mashed potatoes, warmed over.” Throughout sultry songs like “The Peacocks (A Timeless Place”) and “I Remember You”; unflinching assessments of our fraught world in her sober take on the Stylistics’ “People Make the World Go Round”; and religious fervor in “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “Moanin’,” Horn demonstrated her range and depth, while ever vigilant in calling out her maker as its source.
Even A.I.M, the New York-based dance company headed by choreographer Kyle Abraham, started the performance slanting sacred. Its first piece, choreographer Doug Varone’s 1994 “Strict Love,” sampled radio deejay commentary with the greatest hits of 1970, winding up automaton-like dancers with “Spirit in the Sky,” while referencing Jesus Christ Superstar as the Broadway sensation of the year.
From there, the production canted decidedly secular, with three pieces by Abraham that at times underscored the limits of our human connections — such as the push-me-pull-you “Excerpt from Dear Home,” in which dancers Tamisha Guy and Jeremy “Jae” Neal both long for and leave one another, seek out and stand off. In “Drive,” the dancers move with urban, hip-hop/techno charge among the living, thrust in the pulsing glare of the city.
Talk of the afterlife included one or two fallen angels, too. Over at Woolfe Street, the devil himself was in the house, by way of the National Theatre of Scotland’s The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, a whiskey-fueled, verse-powered immersive lark with Lucifer by David Greig — accessed by way of a B&B in a wee town named Kelso. There, you’ll find plenty of mayhem through antic karaoke, paper-napkin snow-tossing, and energized, able wit, all while you discover that if you dance with the devil, you may never quit him.
Satan had the temerity to pop up at the Dock Street Theatre, too, in Program VII of Chamber Music — slyly sandwiched between Vivaldi and Brahms. In Mauricio Kagel’s 1986 Aus dem Nachlass, the composer’s imaginings of conversations with the devil, submerging chamber heads in a wonderfully weird, deep and deeper still foray into the lower circles of hell, spun from the outsize talents of Masumi Per Rostad on viola; Joshua Roman on cello; and Doug Balliett on double bass.
Saturday night’s Ranky Tanky concert at Cistern Yard gathered the Holy City’s homegrown band that has hit it big globally by rendering wholly new some of the most resonant songs and spirituals with Gullah roots, doing so by blending jazz, hardcore rhythm and blues, and more. Ranky Tanky’s members Kevin Hamilton (bass), Quiana Parler (vocalist), Clay Ross (guitar, vocals), Charlton Singleton (trumpet, vocals), and Quentin Baxter (drums) — along with nephew Calvin Baxter (drums) — have played together in various configurations for years, achieving a time-won cohesion that is pure joy to behold. The resulting sound is at once lively and lush, like the Lowcountry that has shaped its sounds, and as musically tight as a Wadmalaw tick.
And, yes, the band bursts with profound faith and devotion. Songs like “You Better Mind” caution all to prepare for judgment day. The Gullah song “You Gotta Move,” which was made famous by The Rolling Stones, gets a moving take-back that sounds as good as it must feel for the Gullah descendents and devotees comprising the group, hewing to its message of “When the Lord gets ready, you gotta move.” With the convergence of such world-class musicianship and spiritual conviction, even the most skeptical among us would be hard-pressed to discount God in the Cistern Yard.
Still, other productions occupied themselves with the all-too-human. Gravity & Other Myths’ Backbone pushed the limits of physicality, while also at times intentionally pointing out its frailties — a slightly uneasy petite female acrobat at the onset; a band-snapping game aiming right for men’s vulnerable spots; a strength endurance bit where the males were felled.
There was also You Are Mine Own, the music-media mash up with members of the Spoleto Festival USA orchestra performing Alban Berg’s “Lyric Suite for sting quartet” and Alexander Zemlinsky’s “Lyric Symphony” and featuring soprano Natalia Pavlova and baritone Alexander Dobson. As directed by film icon Atom Egoyan, it intertwined Bengali poet Tagore’s poems with projections of kathak dance hand gestures in an evening that had much to offer, but that may have been undercut by some of the performative bells and whistles.
Emerging on the other side of this artistic come-to-Jesus, I am likely still not quite prepared for the judgment. However, I am a better person for the earnest and unapologetic spirituality that popped up in surprising places in the past few days. And I am more than primed for the remaining days of the festival. Dorrance Dance promises contemporary tap at its best from New York City. One of Sixty-Five Thousand Gestures/NEW BODIES joins together dancer/choreographer Jodi Melnick with choreographic legend Trisha Brown. There’s jazz great Craig Taborn and an evening of Mozart and Mahler.
And, of course, there’s The War and Treaty along with the Lone Bellow at the Finale, now in its new downtown locale, The Joe. I don’t know, a great band, an inspired Ashley River setting, and an excuse to eat a Homewrecker hot dog? Sounds like religion to me.