Doing a year in review as the calendar turns ignores the fact that the biggest performing-arts presenters are still in the midst of their seasons, which run from fall through spring. So we’re pausing now, near the end of the academic year, to look back at the highlights of the 2015–16 season and take their presenters' artistic temperature. We’ll cover the area’s independent presenters on our blog, but we’re focusing here on four prominent university-affiliated series. They are key ambassadors from North Carolina to the world, and how they use their platforms is especially important after HB 2. Presenters and artists drive change, whether they boycott our state or alter their shows to speak to it. They tell us and the world a more complex story about being North Carolinian than the stereotypes promulgated by runaway politicians and an incurious national media. And, of course, they delight, edify, and entertain. —Brian Howe
Like most people, Carolina Performing Arts director Emil Kang discovered Charles "Lil Buck" Riley in a phone video Spike Jonze uploaded to YouTube. In the video, Riley, a virtuoso of the Memphis street-dance style jookin', performs Fokine's ballet solo for Camille Saint-Saëns's "The Swan," played by world-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
The performance is not quite European classical, nor is it American street. Instead, it opens a third space where hierarchies dissolve. Lil Buck's April show at Memorial Hall amplified that egalitarian quality, even while multiplying the number of global inputs. It was the most unforgettable performance I saw this season: Spectacular in the moment, it also refreshed my awareness of the fact that art is art, regardless of form, if you know where to look for the seams.
Jookin' is fluidly jerky, like stop-motion film, with a certain contortionist bravado. Its performers float in a cloud of sinuous limbs and gyroscopic feet, ankles swiveling freely on impossible axes. No one floats more lightly, contorts more lyrically, than Lil Buck (though his partner at Memorial Hall, Ron "Prime Tyme" Myles, rose to every technical challenge). A product of the Memphis jookin' scene, Riley also studied at the New Ballet Ensemble, and he has taken his version of the regional dance form to international heights. At Memorial Hall, he was joined—"backed" isn't the right word for a collaboration so mutually communicative—by a remarkable band from Ma's Silk Road Ensemble.
After a short jookin' primer at the outset, the show never felt like a hip-hop starter course for chamber music subscribers. Each musician took a lengthy solo as the dancers, then the other players, gradually joined the fray, increasing the energy to a controlled fever pitch. This structure gave a showcase to each performer, and, most exciting, no mode dominated—strains of the U.S., Europe, India, China, and Spain blended unselfconsciously in delightful ways.
Building a breathtakingly long arch, Sandeep Das metastasized minimalist tabla patter into a high-BPM groove full of dangerous tuned swerves. Similarly, Wu Tong, a master of the sheng—Chinese pipes with a brightly furred sonority not unlike the harmonium—nudged forlorn drones toward a hoedown and interjected belts of impassioned Chinese singing. Brooklyn Rider violinist Johnny Gandelsman smoothly shifted gears to navigate the many modes.
The show offered many amazements, from Lil Buck running forward into a backflip at headlong speed to the way his entire body constantly flowed like an ink animation, his feet inscribing elegant hieroglyphics that were almost visible in their clarity. It's a pleasure to watch someone revel in the sheer joy of physical capacity. But even better was seeing hip-hop dance treated as one movement vocabulary among others. It never felt like a fun garnish (ballet—with hip-hop! Flamenco—with hip-hop!) but was an integral element in a global system, one that could pivot from street to ballet with the merest tilt of an instep, the slightest smoothing of a spin into a pirouette. —Brian Howe
Emil Kang isn't new to bringing category-bursting shows to Carolina Performing Arts, with world premieres from the likes of performance artist Taylor Mac already under his belt. But this season, UNC-Chapel Hill's series was especially marked by audacious, hard-to-define performances that seemed unconcerned with salability. Beyond Lil Buck, there was a second commission from Marie Chouinard, an accomplished choreographer with virtually no mainstream name recognition, whose dances blend classical beauty with mortifying expressions of fear, shame, and pain. There was Shara Worden and Andrew Ondrejcak's bizarre chamber opera You Us We All, a not-quite-solved baroque-pop puzzle box that left me with mixed feelings but lasting impressions. And there was pace-setting experimental theater director Ivo Van Hove's Antigone—easy to market, with Juliette Binoche in the title role, but challenging to audience expectations with its elementally stripped-down, ceremonially brooding setting of the classic tale. When these kinds of bookings come from a presenter that could dine out all year on The Nutcracker, Brahms's piano quartets, and Martha Graham, it means something: it's a mark of artistic commitment worth trusting, wherever it leads. —Brian Howe
Duke Performances has often pushed artists toward long-form experiments, from Bill Frisell and Bill Morrison's The Great Flood to the Campbell Brothers' re-creation of A Love Supreme. This season was no different, with innovative evening-length works by Hiss Golden Messenger and the Orlando Consort, and a unique collaboration between Imani Winds and the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Two shows, by Roomful of Teeth and Michael Gordon, were particularly exemplary.
Roomful of Teeth concluded the season with two large-scale works by young composers. The eight-piece vocal ensemble embraces a vast range of nonclassical techniques to forge a sound all its own. Caroline Shaw's 2013 Pulitzer winner, Partita for 8 Voices, and Wally Gunn's The Ascendant approached that sound from different perspectives. Partita is Roomful's manifesto, seamlessly melding its different sounds so that each seems inevitable, none out of place. It reveals just how much traditional classical vocals leave behind. The Ascendant, a setting of texts about the fall of man by Australian poet Maria Zajkowski, is less ostentatious in its sonics but makes up for it with powerful scope. It is a beautiful, devastating work.
A week earlier, Mantra Percussion and the Rushes Ensemble presented two recent works by Bang on a Can cofounder Michael Gordon. They took advantage of the unique acoustics of the Durham Fruit and Produce Company, one of the few remaining unfinished warehouses in town. Timber and Rushes are similar works, constructing engulfing hour-long drones out of thousands of tiny pulses. Timber uses six two-by-fours, Rushes seven bassoons; each dives deep into the peculiar timbres of its chosen instrument. This was the first time these works had been paired, an audacious booking that only Duke Performances would consider. —Dan Ruccia
Under Aaron Greenwald's direction, Duke Performances has set the pace for academic institutions bolstering safe-bet classical with cutting-edge performing arts. This season, it asserted its ongoing dominance in presenting global and postminimal music—though the race is getting closer, with CPA booking the likes of Ensemble intercontemporain. But UNC's series had the more vital nonmusical offerings, after Duke's were diminished by the non-HB 2-or-snow-related cancelations of a tap show featuring Savion Glover and Jack DeJohnette (rescheduled for June) and a Beckett trilogy. Still, the area's most reliable presenter had Julian Sands performing Pinter, hip-hop-dance pioneer Rennie Harris, Shakespeare marauders Filter Theatre, and more—not a lineup to sneeze at. But one is pleased to note that, after pulling other area series up to its ambitious level, Duke Performances now has some real competition for fans of the freshest performing arts' time. —Brian Howe
Last fall wasn't the first time NC State LIVE had the aerial dance troupe Bandaloop take its work outside a conventional theater. In 1997, the group catapulted, swooped, and dove, suspended by cables, on the face of the North Carolina Education Building. Then, last September, for the grand reopening of Talley Student Union, Bandaloop adapted and performed two works on the vertical surfaces of the building's airy four-story atrium. The weekend after a two-night stand in Stewart Theatre, NC State LIVE presented the group, in conjunction with SPARKcon, one afternoon on Hillsborough Street. In Travelers, two Bandaloop dancers nonchalantly jived, cheek to cheek, to Count Basie, some six stories off the ground, on the wall of the then unopend Aloft Hotel. Then a quartet somersaulted in slow motion down several stories in the pensive Container Quartet. About three hundred people, some just passersby, looked on. It was an exciting example of what can happen when presenters think outside of the black box. —Byron Woods
Duke Performances and Carolina Performing Arts use leading performers as ink to write stories about art, our region, and their presenters' personal vision, but NC State LIVE has a less clear identity. It brought some world-class heat this season (Kenny Barron, Acoustic Africa), but it relied heavily on more gimmicky cirque acts (Gravity & Other Myths), pop-classical personalities (Cameron Carpenter), and family-friendly theater. Though acrobats were a novel way to show off the revamped Stewart Theatre, it also seemed like a missed opportunity, in the year when the presenter rebranded itself as NC State LIVE, to refine its desultory bookings. Nothing wrong with a fun, accessible season, but one would like to see NCSU join the arms race with UNC and Duke to bring us the most essential performing artists. —Brian Howe
September's Disgraced and February's We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South-West Africa, From the German Sudwest, Between the Years 1884-1915 united a number of important themes from the tenure of PlayMakers Repertory Company's former artistic director, Joseph Haj. In both, we were confronted with the stories of people from cultures outside the typical American experience. Both addressed the thorny issues of authenticity and appropriation that arise when outsiders, including theater companies, try to represent those cultures in art.
In the agonies of Amir (Rajesh Bose), who is both an insider and an outsider in his own marriage, his family, and his country, Disgraced takes on the social stigma and silent segregation Arab-Americans endure. Ayad Akhtar's script condemns the xenophobia and intolerance found among the extremists of Islam, Christianity, and American society. It also asks if it's possible to embrace the ideals found in each without acknowledging—and attempting to reform—their dark sides.
PlayMakers also continued to interrogate American theater's inadequate responses to prejudice and marginalized populations. After last season's Trouble in Mind condemned a sanitized depiction of black history, We Are Proud to Present ... mocked the ethical and artistic shortcuts sometimes taken in devised theater, drama's recent fad.
These clueless college students shouldn't have been unsupervised while making a play about the Herero, an African people wiped out by German colonizers at the dawn of the twentieth century. Inadequate research, imagination, and empathy ultimately turned the group on itself when the only ethnic heritage and conflict it could draw on was its own. Indeed, ethnographic theater that never transcends our own culture's foibles is useless to all. —Byron Woods
This was the season Joseph Haj had been building toward for his entire tenure as artistic director of PlayMakers Rep. Never had we spent so much time—in six out of nine shows—in the present tense, facing our contemporaries on stage. Never had we wrestled as regularly with pressing social and political issues of our day. It's too early to assess the changes under Vivienne Benesch, though her first PlayMakers show as artistic director, Three Sisters, was robust and contemporary. Refreshingly, half of the six mainstage shows announced for the 2016–17 season (on which, we should note, Benesch had little input) are by women. But the next season also seems shorter on the immediacy we saw in the last one, edging us toward the relative safety of the past, with Detroit '67 and Intimate Apparel situated fifty and one hundred years ago, and The Crucible set in the 1600s. Twelfth Night and the musical chestnut My Fair Lady reinforce the sense that PlayMakers has chosen a safer route for 2016–17, changing course from offerings that directly address the turbulence of our times. —Byron Woods
This article appeared in print with the headline "Encore Performance"