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Everyday people and extraordinary experiences define Spoleto 2012

The Uncommon Commonplace

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Typically, once the fireworks rise over Middleton Place, we are ushered back into the ordinary world. But this year's Spoleto never really strayed that far away from the ordinary world, the reassuring semblance of the workaday. Spoleto 2012 was a mirror, a prism, or even a pair of reading glasses more than a kaleidoscope.

There were exceptions. But even these served to highlight the broad-stroke look and feel of the 2012 festival.

Hay Fever took us to a country house party in glittering Jazz Age England. Beautiful costumes played against the artful disorder and genteel scruffiness of the furniture on the set. A place far removed in time from us, yes, but bearing a striking familiarity as well. You could easily picture an Agatha Christie murder mystery in those confines. Simply looking at the set, you could imagine how the people who belonged there might talk, fix up a cocktail, let a cigarette dangle from their lips. The truly extraordinary element of Hay Fever came from those people, the wild notions they entertained, the over-the-top drama they created within that tableau.

Feng Yi Ting, another festival attention-getter, seemed to tug its audience directly into the kaleidoscope, one full of images, textures, scraps of moments holding still, then jostling into new forms. Feng had as many moving parts as an old-fashioned timepiece, but it never descended to the level of clockwork predictability. Even so, the production's focus was a narrative as old as time: A power struggle, a nation at risk. Duty, honor, obligation. Two willful men and a woman who could bend their wills to hers for the greater good.

For many, the head-scratcher of this festival was A Crack in Everything. Its minimalist set could have been home to anything. It became a vessel of dreams. Erik Andor's gold-accented costumes evoked the spirit of Gustav Klimt; they might have graced an extraordinary art deco vase. But the music, both ambient and classical, was not so far-flung from our experience. And passages in the choreography suggested a weekday yoga class that had become unhinged, and perhaps had even gone feral.

Even the delightfully subversive The Animals and Children Took to the Streets, for all its bittersweet chocolate brand of humor, presented a world not so very different from our own. Animals may have been a twisted fairy tale, but its familiar elements lent it the feel of a ship in a bottle — wondrous, yet readily identifiable. We began to feel that the Bayou Mansions boarding house on Redherring Street might have actually existed in some sub-basement of existence. Animals' world was almost entirely conjured up from a common household appliance: the television. The actors played out their drama in a tableau projected onto them, interacted with it from just outside and beyond that flat dimension. We might ask how often our own world feels flat to us, like something merely projected onto our souls.

We might also, like LEO, feel boxed in. These days, we might feel like the normal rules have been suspended indefinitely — the very pull of gravity displaced in such a way that our best course forward is undertaken in a spirit of playful investigation. In the new normal, we might ask: What happens when I do this? Or this? LEO's Everyman with a briefcase could be the guy in the coffee shop reading The Wall Street Journal, only he'd be doing it while perched firmly on the ceiling. Our own everyday world is not always exactly what it seems either. Anomalies creep in. Adjustments must be made.

Philip Glass' Kepler, while giving us a Post-It biography of a historical figure, populated the stage with very ordinary looking sort of folk — teachers, very pretty bureaucrats, a young boy and his mother — clad in contemporary clothing. Reinforcing the notion of extraordinary achievement in mundane surroundings, the opera's libretto presented material that's about as emotionally engaging as lecture notes, which is to say pretty close to a typical student's daily life.

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater piece "Home" gave us dancers in street clothes. Arden Court's costumes were dance-basic — tights, leotards, and skirts. Yannick Lebrun performed his solo dance "In/Side" in briefs.

Moving up from underwear in the scale of sartorial complexity, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet's "Grace Engine" featured the dance troupe in business attire, symbolically plodding through the worst stereotypes of the corporate grind — the commutes, the intramural office backstabbing, and all those other quotidian tasks that appear on necessary-but-annoying to-do lists everywhere.

Traces knocked us all out with its street-wise gusto. It may have been performed by circus artists, but its core was a block party. These kids acted out the spirit of the idea, "Dance as if no one's watching." They twisted, leaped, skated, sang, played music, and doodled with such energetic abandon that it never occurred to us not to give them a standing ovation for it. If Traces was their version of the Everyman's day off, hanging out with the gang, they made us all want to be a part of that neighborhood crew. Perched on the edge of an abyss, they still managed to create a bond that worked, a community.

One of our most basic societal compacts is that idea of community. Kyle Abraham's The Radio Show grabbed that idea and hugged it close. The choreography here had as many vivid emotions as there are hours in a day. The radio of The Radio Show wasn't just another appliance, it was a voice and a rhythm and a conversation.

Close encounters of the conversational kind came to us from a variety of lively theatrical sources. Jack Hitt's Making Up the Truth left us scanning the program for a recommended reading list. Hitt fired our imagination even as he tickled us with his humor. But for all that, Making Up the Truth was still just a guy on stage with a table, a chair, and a glass of water, just talking. He could have done away with the slideshow running behind him and lost nothing of any great import.

And then there was Mike Daisey, another guy, but sans slideshow, just talking, but with the heat of a media firestorm licking away at the edges of his stage. Daisey's The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs showed us what all the initial fuss was about, and his debut of an untitled work-in-progress brought us up to date on his life and satisfied our morbid curiosity.

The Festival Orchestra and all its variant subsets and combinations proved once again why Spoleto is the launch pad for many stellar musical careers. The wonderful Music in Time series, the orchestral offerings, and the always reliable Bank of America Chamber Music series all drew good reports, meeting or exceeding expectations. These mainstays act as one of the anchors of Spoleto, providing continuity more reliably than surprise. One notable exception to this broad-stroke observation: Orchestra Uncaged, with pieces from John Cage and Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, garnered both a large audience and substantial praise.

In a pop-music vein, k.d. lang and Joy Kills Sorrow wowed, Mavis Staples soared, and a diverse selection of talents from around the world gave us music from many traditions. Cécile McLorin Salvant left us wanting more, and at the tender age of 22, with what we trust will be a very long career ahead of her, we anticipate having our wishes fulfilled. David Peña Dorantes gave a jaw-dropping performance that most in his audience, expecting feverish flamenco and little more, could not have anticipated. Virgínia Rodrigues seemed off-pace in her Galliard show, yet inspired resounding applause at the end of her set. Those who'd seen Jake Shimabukuro perform at Spoleto before knew what to expect and were not disappointed. He's a great showman, a talented musician, and, as we discovered later, a really nice guy. The extraordinary Renaud Garcia-Fons left us struggling for superlatives. We were especially grateful that he gave at least a handful of performances.

All of these were experiences we'll keep tucked away for ourselves. And as vivid as these performances were, I still like to keep around some tangible reminders of them. Keepsakes, I suppose.

Beside me, as I write this, there is a short stack of Spoleto ticket stubs. Perhaps you have a similar collection. In these mementos, there is theater, music, and dance. In there, too, are memories of perspiring power walks from one event to another and leisurely strolls back to the car at the end of an evening. There are chance meetings and conversations — many conversations. That little stack represents the calling cards of memory, of many fulfilling moments and a few extraordinary ones. Perhaps the message this year's Spoleto artists have called on us to remember has everything to do with our little stacks of experience, the lives we live every day. Perhaps the notion they've asked us to entertain is that there are extraordinary things happening among us, right here. Perhaps we only need to remind ourselves of that.

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