Leaving Carolina Performing Arts' October presentation of Antigone—the critically divisive new production from avant-garde director Ivo van Hove, starring Juliette Binoche—I heard people complaining that the lights were too bright, the music too screechy. I heard them debating the efficacy of various contemporized roles. But I didn't hear anyone saying "meh."
This kind of heated, polarized response is music to the ears of Emil Kang, the director of UNC-Chapel Hill's performing arts organization for the last decade.
"I don't want to know if people liked it or not," Kang says, in his candid way, of the challenging shows he books. "The best thing you could tell me is, 'I'm really glad you brought this because it made my life better, richer; I feel like I'm a happier person because I'm able to attend performances like this.'"
It's no small order in an area habituated to a familiar, steady diet of world-class string quartets and modern dance mainstays, but that's the kind of big game Kang, intent on leading rather than following his patrons' tastes, is after.
One hesitates to cast the region's academic presenters in a horse race; they all add something valuable. But this year in particular, Carolina Performing Arts is challenging established pacesetter Duke Performances as the most daring. Generously peppered in among such safe bets as Alvin Ailey and The Nutcracker are Ensemble Intercontemporain's bracing modernist chamber music, Shara Worden's experimental court masque and Compagnie Marie Chouinard's avant-garde dance.
Through his patient global ambassadorship, his distaste for the habitual and appetite for the unknown, and his singularly intense conviction that art can change lives, Kang is ushering Chapel Hill into a global conversation with larger urban arts centers around the world.
Mark Katz, the director of UNC's Institute for the Arts and Humanities, says, "What he's been able to do in just over 10 years is pretty astonishing, bringing visionary artists from a very wide range of fields to Carolina and facilitating new works."
These cutting-edge artists offer chances to test your preconceptions rather than confirming what you already like. None of them has any reason to come here beyond Kang's personal belief in, and diligent courtship of, their work.
"This is going to sound really cowboy-like, but we don't program based on a prediction of the audience's response," Kang says. "I believe programming should be done by leadership, not by consensus. Then, at the very least, we can say we're doing something we believe in."
Shara Worden is a singer and new-music composer who leads the baroque pop band My Brightest Diamond. Her You Us We All, a collaboration with director Andrew Ondrejcak and the ensemble BOX, swirls proto-opera for period instruments in a martini glass with Beyoncé and the Olsen twins. Following its 2013 European premiere, its first U.S. run comes only to the Brooklyn Academy of Music and UNC's Memorial Hall.
"BAM has alliances with performing arts presenters nationally, [but] Carolina Performing Arts ... has the distinction of being consistent in responding to works like the Shara Worden opera," says Joseph V. Melillo, BAM's executive producer.
Such coups are the result of Kang's long-term efforts behind the scenes.
"Shara wouldn't have come with this opera if she hadn't been with us before," he says. (Carolina Performing Arts has commissioned work from her in the past.) Likewise, this is its second Chouinard commission, following 2009's unforgettable Orpheus et Eurydice.
"I've been chasing Ivo van Hove and Ensemble Intercontemporain around Europe for years," Kang says. "If artists abroad are looking into America through the news media, the American South wouldn't be the first place they think of. We're trying to change that mentality, but you can only change it one artist at a time."
Kang wants authentic encounters more than ticket sales. He is most interested in developing relationships—his watchword—among presenters, artists and audiences. His measured speech belies an almost messianic fervor. For Kang, booking is almost painfully personal.
"The answer is simple: We want to," he says of force-feeding Chapel Hill daunting artists. "There isn't any sneaky agenda to bring difficult work. But we do then fight tooth and nail over budget projections, and performances I care about a lot end up on the cutting-room floor. I mourn each of their losses—grieve their deaths, in a way."
This seriousness of purpose translates into uncompromising honesty. Kang forgoes flattery in order to build a fearlessly committed, trustworthy brand. Preferring enrichment to pleasure, he sometimes books work he doesn't actually enjoy.
"I don't have to like a particular work to believe it's important for us to do," he explains. "I've had arguments with artists about this. I tell them it's not my cup of tea, but I think you have something to say. I did that recently and had a 17-hour conversation over bourbon."
Kang says bigger changes are to come. He wants to free Carolina Performing Arts from the constraints of tradition, building memorable encounters and lasting bonds with artists.
"Seasons are always sprinkled with a few one-and-done artists, which I don't mean critically," Kang says. "If we had our druthers we would present only artists we are building relationships with, who are here for multiple days and required to engage with the community. We want to eliminate the transactional nature of the arts."
To that end, outreach is the next phase, though Kang shies away from the term.
"It feels unidirectional, and I don't believe our future lies in getting more butts in seats," he says. "This doesn't mean we won't continue it, but celebrating the passive experience in a sacred space doesn't represent our future. How do we become a consistent presence on and off campus, with programming initiatives that are about active engagement rather than sitting in the dark?"
In the meantime, Kang continues to crisscross the globe, searching for the next show that will ennoble Chapel Hill. "He is unstoppable in terms of his work ethic and travel schedule," Katz says. "People draw energy from his energy and enthusiasm."
"When I get dropped off in the middle of nowhere, I love the feeling," Kang says. He blends the grand vision of a great presenter with the intimate commitment of his belief that meaning lies in respectful engagement, not detached observation. He is now on a discovery mission in Pakistan, learning how he might present its contemporary art and building relationships that will lead him in unexpected directions.
"We go where the artist is and talk to them over time about our interest in them," he says. "It is all of that effort that leads to this." Before he left, he went to a Pakistani boutique to buy a shalwar kameez.