From the wide stage of Raleigh's Fletcher Opera Theater Friday night, The Old Ceremony frontman Django Haskins stared at the audience like it was a cut onion: Try as he might, he could only direct his gaze at the crowd of several hundred for moments at a time, eventually diverting his eyes upward, toward the light, as though he were trying to stave off chemical tears.
But when Haskins looked high above stage left, he was actually marveling at the aerial acrobatics of Rebecca Drake, a Chapel Hill yoga instructor who uses a looped fabric trapeze to bend and twist her body in mid-air. She choreographed three Old Ceremony songs for Friday night's performance, arcing above the stage while wound in fabric. Each time she would make a dramatic move—pivoting her body between the sheer strands, hanging upside down, stretching into awkward angles—Haskins would look up mid-lyric and grin. He was watching his songs be reinvented.
When Drake finished each set of maneuvers, the audience clapped. When the band finished each song, the audience clapped again. And when performers from local dance organization Tangophilia took to the stage, some members of the audience responded in kind, dancing to rock songs in the aisles of the opera theater.
The Old Ceremony's brilliantly synesthetic performance closed the second day of Art on the Edge, the third of four weekend festivals in a new series called Arts Alive. The series is the latest work of Artsplosure, a Raleigh organization that uses city, county, state and private sponsorships to fund celebrations of the arts in Raleigh. This new series is specific to Lichtin Plaza, the two-acre, green-and-concrete space in front of the Progress Energy Center in downtown Raleigh.
Over three days, nearly 5,000 people participated in the events—theater, dance, rock 'n' roll and a temporary public art installation imported from Nottingham, England—on the plaza and in the theater itself. What began as a thin crowd on Thursday night was a line so long that hundreds of people had to be turned away by Saturday evening.
"It was very successful from our standpoint, beyond our wildest expectations of how people would react to and how many people would come," says Terri Dollar, the program director of Artsplosure. "Our expectations were just to see what would happen. ... and this weekend was a great weekend in Raleigh."
Even if Art on the Edge had performed below Dollar's expectations, the festival still would have set new precedents for the arts in Raleigh. The city has long played host to a struggle between strong, individual enclaves of artists in every field and official and financial city policy that's strived to bring people downtown, no matter the cost. While a beer-sponsored music series operates with the aegis of the Raleigh Convention Center, the city's best rock club in a decade fell to the bulldozer to make way for a parking deck associated with the same convention center. While the city spent $1 million to lure an unprofitable restaurant that serves kangaroo into the city center, that club still has no new home.
But Art on the Edge put blistering local rock bands like Birds of Avalon and The Huguenots on a fancy stage outdoors; it presented Burning Coal Theatre Company's Howie the Rookie, a foul-mouthed drama about a debauched night in Dublin's public housing, inside; and less than two years after the city quashed plans for a public light sculpture by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, the festival drew almost 3,000 people into an English-built luminarium that employed Islamic design principles and a faint electric drone as background music.
Talking to Dollar, it's easy to be convinced that she deserves the lion's share of the credit. Still, she relinquishes most of that recognition to her Artsplosure staff and the philanthropy of Harold Lichtin, the local real estate developer who not only contributed his money to the festival but also convinced sponsors like Capitol Broadcasting Company and BB&T to make substantial contributions. But if money was the enabler, Dollar was the real connection. A 52-year-old mother of two, she talks about Slim's and Birds of Avalon or Cat's Cradle and The Old Ceremony like she's a quarter-century younger. She acknowledges that Artsplosure and First Night Raleigh, which the organization also books, are tried-and-true brands. People come expecting something specific, so it's not the place to push the city's mainstream envelope. She hopes Art on the Edge can be. The city deserves it, she says.
"Sometimes Raleigh gets this provincial rap, but I don't think we're provincial. I just think sometimes the provincial ones are the loudest ones," she explains. "The rest of us need to get ... I just wanted to stand on a rooftop and shout, 'You people need to demand art like this.'"
Dollar plans on being one person who will demand it, or at least that Art on the Edge continues. Of the four events Artsplosure has planned for Lichtin Plaza, Art on the Edge was by far the most expensive and, she says, so far the most popular.
"It opens people to the idea that we ought to have more [public art]. A festival like this opens people's eyes and imagination," says Dollar, who credits the new convention center's Shimmer Wall for its statement as public art. "I saw several people from our government out there enjoying it, and I wanted to say, 'I hope that you see this is a possibility. I'm so glad you're here.'"
Dollar says the progress will be incremental, but, for her, last weekend indicates that risky public art in Raleigh can be successful. After all, this year was an experiment, or an appetizer, meant to show Raleigh the sort of stuff it can recruit. She hopes it continues to work.
"We don't want to push too hard ... because it turns some people off," Dollar says, laughing. "You know Raleigh: If you push the edge too hard, you could be in trouble."
Artsplosure Program Director Terri Dollar mentioned seeing various city officials at Art on the Edge last weekend, but she wouldn't name names because she wasn't sure she'd seen them all. We called the mayor and city council members to see if they made it and to hear what they thought of the event in either case.CHARLES MEEKER (Mayor):