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Ambitious live arts programming at UNC and N.C. State 

Teachers and students

click to enlarge Emil Kang, director of Carolina Performing Arts, looks forward to a season that includes Al Green and Caetano Veloso. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE
  • Photo by Jeremy M. Lange
  • Emil Kang, director of Carolina Performing Arts, looks forward to a season that includes Al Green and Caetano Veloso.

UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State University are both attempting to broaden their performance horizons with their fall programs, with events designed to raise the profiles of both campuses. A year ago, the Chapel Hill school reopened its famed Memorial Hall with a program that was, to say the least, eclectic. It included fascinating obscurities such as the Chorus Repertory Theatre's Nine Hills, One Valley, and some low-hanging fruit such as a touring production of Rent. Meanwhile, N.C. State looks to transcend its image as a sports 'n' science academy by tapping into students' artistic talents.

Emil Kang, the executive director of Carolina Performing Arts, has been putting in some serious mileage in his quest for top-notch programming for the 1,634-seat theater. His peregrinations over the past year have included stops in China, India, Australia and Scotland. The result is an eclectic group of performances that combines the theatrical with the political—no accident, because this is part of the school's effort to make its performing arts program "an extension of the classroom," according to Kang. More than that, it's an effort to raise the area's profile in the performing arts. "To get Chapel Hill to be seen as an artistic destination, rather than a tourist stop, is the major goal for us," Kang says.

UNC's fall program is bookended with such well-known acts as Al Green on Sept. 13 and the Carolina Ballet's Nutcracker from Nov. 30 to Dec. 2. But it also boasts performers who are likely to be unfamiliar to North Carolina residents, such as the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan's performance of Wild Cursive on Sept. 28-29. Considered Taiwan's premiere dance organization, it is hugely popular both internationally and in its native country, where Aug. 21 is designated as "Cloud Gate Day."

"For us, the fact that we've gotten them to come here is a major achievement, because of their political importance and their significance in the contemporary dance field," Kang says.

Kang is also particularly proud of the Oct. 5 performance of Pamina Devi: A Cambodian Magic Flute, and of the Oct. 26 performance of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, Russia's oldest symphony orchestra, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary. In addition, he's excited over the Nov. 7 performance by Brazilian superstar Caetano Veloso. "People who have seen his show can't believe we've gotten him to perform here," Kang says.

Many of the performers are closely linked with the culture and political histories of their native countries. In the past, Veloso's work was often censored by Brazil's military dictatorship, and Pamina Devi was created by Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge who helped re-establish the performing arts in Cambodia in the aftermath of Pol Pot's reign. For Kang, the intersection of these artists with the brutal politics of their lives will be a prime teachable moment. And artists of this quality will contribute to his efforts to make Memorial Hall a cultural destination. "These are important milestones in our quest to achieve that goal," he says.

N.C. State is also focused on making its performing arts program an extension of the classroom, an unusual, but not difficult, task at a school where many of the students are engineering majors.

More significantly, this semester sees the opening of N.C. State's Arts Village, a community of arts-minded students living in Turlington Residence Hall near Price Music Center, Stewart Theatre and the Gregg Museum of Art & Design. Students living in the Arts Village will attend a wide variety of events and receive priority seating for art-related academic courses. The students also will have access to such artistic outlets hands-on training at the Crafts Center and reserved practice room at Price Music Hall. In addition, the Arts Village program includes an introduction to the business side of performances and events, such as budgeting and marketing.

Associate Vice Chancellor Alex Miller says that student participation numbers for performing arts events have "increased dramatically" since ticket prices decreased to $5 last year—a move undertaken to stimulate student interest. He's also excited about the Arts Village. "We've provided a more formal structure to allow students with real passion for the arts, and they are taking advantage of it," Miller says. "The flavor of that experience is going to color a lot of what we're going to see in our students." There are plans to renovate Tally Student Center on campus, where many performances are held. "Down the road, we're going to be able to offer dramatically expanded performing arts," Miller says.

The fall program includes a wide variety of stage and performing events. The series opens Sept. 14 with a performance by the acclaimed "newgrass" band Old School Freight Train, an acoustic group whose combination of bluegrass, jazz, Latin, Celtic and pop was called "the next big thing" by the Boston Globe. The Center Stage series also includes a stage version of the classic antiwar satire Catch-22 by the Aquila Theatre Company on Oct. 9.

Several well-known figures are also scheduled to perform on campus, such as jazz violinist Regina Carter, who performs on Nov. 3. One performance that has just tied in to international events is Sept. 21's "Sacred Music," where poet Coleman Barks will read his translations of the poet Rumi, accompanied by the N.C. State concert and chamber choirs. Rumi, a 13th-century poet who was born in what is now Afghanistan, has experienced a widespread revival in popularity thanks to Barks' translations. The United Nations celebrated the 800th anniversary of his birth by declaring 2007 "The International Year of Rumi."

There are also many plans involving student performing activities, including University Theatre's productions of A Few Good Men Oct. 3-6 and Dearly Departed Nov. 29-Dec. 1. But Miller's particularly proud of the NCSU Dance Company's fall concert on Nov. 15 and 16, a showcase for the students' artistry. "Over half the students in our music program are engineering majors," Miller says. "And yet, they're some of the best musicians you'll ever hear."

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