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Asking the tough questions of Spoleto's 41st season

Wheretofores and WTFs

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During Charleston's Spoleto season, when it rains, it pours. And the 2017 festival is now blowing in, with its frequently dazzling, at times dizzying arts deluge. Before the tearing of a single ticket, I find myself already reeling with questions about the 41st annual Spoleto USA. Questions are, after all, a driving part of the enterprise. "The role of the artist," said playwright Anton Chekhov, "is to ask questions, not answer them." So I'm thinking that's the role of the arts critic, too.

With that in mind, I'm lobbing some of those questions your way, as well. My end game is to kick start the vital, truthful exchange that an arts festival is meant to foster, whether by mining the wheretofores and the WTFs of this year's lineup, or by mulling the state of the arts festival in our mushrooming, morphing city. So if you'll indulge me in a few paragraphs of critical throat-clearing — delivered in the form of some questions — I'll wrap up with a heads-up on some opening weekend highlights.

Let's start with a soft ball: Have you ever lived in a city without a major arts festival? I have. It was Charleston, in the mid-'70s — serene, storied, with arguably a tad too much starch in its seersucker. For a wandering, wondering preteen like myself, the cultural offerings could be as samey-samey as the Wonderbread in my tin tartan lunchbox. Then in 1977, in a divine stroke of deus ex machina, Gian Carlo Menotti cherry-picked Charleston for an American edition of his Italian festival. In a preview in The New York Times, Grace Glueck prophesized, "the old Southern city may have to stop calling itself 'America's best-preserved secret.' " True that.

That May, a merry lot of artists marauded in, all wild attire and joyous abandon. My friends and I would perch on public walls and gape, slack-jawed. I was soon chatting up legendary director Joshua Logan at a festival party; slipping into trippy Visconti films at the Gloria (now Sottile Theatre); listening to Ella Fitzgerald scatting in Cistern Yard; and (as I've crowed about before) singing with the Westminster Choir on the Gaillard stage. To be clear: We should never take for granted the little festival that could — particularly in a time when the arts face marginalization from the powers that be.

So from there I wend existential. What purpose does Spoleto Festival USA serve in Charleston today? The cultural upstarts of the '70s and '80s — Spoleto Festival USA, BAM'S Next Wave Festival, Sundance — now comfortably chug along, well oiled and well padded, with a curatorial shorthand sure to fill seats, attract supporters, and wrangle top talent. Spoleto's big 4-0 last year rolled out an epic homespun love song in the Technicolor, crowd-pleasing Porgy and Bess, all gussied up for the slick new Gaillard. A healthy, community-wide moment of midlife regrouping was all but lost in the Gershwin-Heyward hurricane.

Here in Charleston, we are at a moment when the local arts scene has the chops and ambition to flourish, in spite of escalating real estate, parking hassles, and the F&B fixation. A major arts festival can, and I would argue should, bolster the grassroots scene. It attracts culturally-minded audiences, while also exposing local artists to new work from around the world. And every resident has skin in the game. To wit, at a Spoleto salon event recently, general director Nigel Redden gave a shout out to the City of Charleston for its continued financial support.

So what exactly does an overview critic have to do with all this? Here's how I see it. First, I'll size up shows to sort the must-sees from the misfires. I'll lay down a few broad strokes — synthesizing the resonant and revolutionary to spot any emergent themes. By the end of the run, I'll hemstitch a holistic summation of this year's lineup, show by show. With any luck, doing so might coax out a collective consciousness from the body of work that spans countries and crosses disciplines. And, in the process of doing all of that, I hope to take the long view of how the festival can make an impact on our cultural landscape in transformative ways, considering how all boats can rise with the festival's high waters.

OK, so what's what on Opening Weekend? In the 2017 festival's fledgling days, curatorial trends are rising up, like the female-centric roster of artists taking the lead across disciplines. Irish director Garry Hynes herself takes a crack at works of theater and opera. Angel homes in on a fierce Kurdish female fighter. Women choreographers drive many of the dance offerings, while, in music, the powerful voices of Dee Dee Bridgewater and Sofía Rei reverberate, loud and proud.

Also, in that aforementioned, all-important spirit of community, the festival presents the supersized time trip that is Slow Dancing, a site-specific video installation by photographer David Michalek that mans Marion Square from May 25 to June 9. Three massive 40- by 30-foot screens will project hi-def videos of 43 dancers — including greats like Wendy Whelan, Bill T. Jones, Elizabeth Streb, and the late Trisha Brown — whose performances are slowed down to one-hundredth of their original time. Piccolo Spoleto gets in on the protracted action, too, hosting companion events in the park. A hit at Lincoln Center, it looks to be a mind-blowing means to bring us all together — and, with any luck, brilliantly, beautifully slow us way down.

Elsewhere, dance gets going with the hip-hop fusion of Company Wang Ramirez's Monchichi, which crosses genres and cultures in its mash up of ballet and martial arts, informed by the French-Spanish origins of former B-boy Sébastien Ramirez and the Korean-German Honji Wang. An earlier work of theirs channeled Madonna, so this looks to have a good strong pulse. At the Gaillard, Madrid-based flamenco dancer Maria Pagés in Yo, Carmen unleashes full-on femininity, with a strong female cast that comes together to conjure that unapologetic gypsy with contemporary flair.

In music, Bridgewater jazzes up Cistern Yard in a return visit for the Grammy-winning singer and 2017 NEA Jazz Master. Later in the weekend, be sure to sample the South American accents of Buenos Aires-born Rei, who draws from folklore, jazz, flamenco, and even electronica. I'm also keen to check out the Music in Times series at the more intimate Woolfe Street Playhouse, launching with its "Tempis Fugit," offering emerging composers' new works. And those who are leeching the weekend into Tuesday should sign on for the Spoleto Celebration Concert, which, among other works, serves up that of composer Edmund Thornton Jenkins, the early 20th-century Charlestonian clarinetist/composer known for straddling the jazz and concert world.

The opera roster is full tilt, too, beginning with Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. It's the brainchild of festival go-tos like director Chen Shi-Zheng and conductor Evan Rogers, joined by set designer Chris Barreca and acclaimed soprano Natalia Pavlova in the role of Tatyana, along with a colorblind cast. At a recent Spoleto salon event, the team also underscored the narrative-driven, youth-centric work as newbie-friendly.

At the Dock Street, Vivaldi's Farnace stars countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo and is directed by Ireland's Garry Hynes (in a double-hitter at the Dock Street this year, as she's also director of Waiting for Godot). Lovers of Les Liaisons Dangereuses will want to check out Quartett, the Royal Opera production by composer-librettist Luca Francesconi that dishes out dystopia by setting the opera in a bunker after World War III. There, two singers play four characters — including a male and female role both played by Norwegian transgender mezzo soprano Adrian Angelico — mess with each other's heads and hearts by way of the work's intense, eerie score.

Theater is female-strong as well, with director Garry Hynes' go at Druid Theatre's Waiting for Godot, a humor-inflected feat that Irish critics have gotten mighty worked up about — no small triumph for their native son's much-parsed play about, well, nothing. Also up is Murmurs, marking a return for Aurélia Thierrée (granddaughter of Oona O'Neill and Charlie Chaplin) in a show that promises bubble wrap, boxes and on-stage surprises for the performers. And, in a bracing take on Northern Syria, Angel is Henry Naylor's one-woman show based on a female fighter that was already a hit at both the Edinburgh and Adelaide festivals.

So, all systems moving our way for the first whirlwind weekend. Any questions? I sincerely hope so.

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