If there is a talismanic object taking hold of the Festival this year, it may just be the high heel shoe. Throughout opening weekend, it appeared as the prop de resistance more than once, hurled across stage, deployed as a sexual weapon, or amplifying a ferocious female foot. And that killer heel was one of many signs of a woman-fueled through line that asserted itself time and again in Spoleto Festival USA 2017 over the past few days.
Spanning every artistic genre and numerous points of origin, the works coming together during this year's Spoleto make it in so many ways the year of the woman. Whether she is taking center stage or making her presence felt in some otherwise-male productions, the woman looms large. In fact, several of the shows I took in this weekend were even named for their female stars or characters — among them, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Monchichi, Sofía Rei, Angel, and Yo, Carmen. These shows and others were shaped by journeys, artistic statements, and candid moments, which are wholly representative of the contemporary female experience.
This full-on femme fest began on Thursday night in Cistern Yard, when Dee Dee Bridgewater departed from her scat-happy standard operating procedure to share songs from her recently recorded album of Memphis-made rhythm and blues. With utter command, she channeled coming-of-age revelations — brought about by transformative songs by female artists like Gladys Knight's "Giving Up," which Bridgewater discovered as a teenager by way of WDIA, the pioneering African-American radio station. She performed a tender take on Barbara Mason's "Yes I'm Ready," harking back to her own girlhood innocence. She also wrapped her formidable voice around renditions of songs by lionized Memphis males, funkifying Elvis Presley's "Don't Be Cruel" to give it new grit, urgency, and depth. Speaking explicitly to "the ladies," Bridgewater recounted her first teenage heartbreak, urging us all to gain strength from such wounds.
The next night, French performer Aurélia Thierrée fashioned an altogether different splice of the female psyche in Murmurs, the majestic brainchild of her mother, Victoria Thierrée Chaplin. Folding in circus arts and contemporary theater, it is a surreal and stylized portrayal of a woman well into a mental breakdown. Popping in and out of boxes and backdrops, transforming everyday objects like bubble wrap into stalking creatures, an unfettered and skittish Thierrée slipped in and out of her own sanity, pursued and at times subdued by men. At one point, she transformed a woman's pocketbook into a glimmering fishhead. In another moment, she frenetically tore away at yellow wallpaper, surely a reference to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's renowned late 19th-century feminist short story, in which a suppressed wife savages the so-hued nursery walls. And, there are those shoes: A pair of vibrant red heels magically, repeatedly reaffix themselves onto her feet, no matter how often she pries them off, and hurls them hither.
While no less perplexed by the vagaries of men, Argentinian singer/songwriter Sofía Rei was as much bemused as miffed by her predicament. Rei made full use of her captivating, gorgeous voice to express modern-day struggles and cynicisms in a sparkling, atmospheric techno-infused set — multiplying the stirring effect of her own masterful vocals by looping them as backup. One song, "Helvetica 12," rips into a heartless email from a paramour; another, "Madilgo de alto cielo" (I Curse the Heavens), covers an anguished work of folk singer Violeta Parra, with a twinkly-eyed Rei sweetly shrugging and offering a wry, "She was upset that day."
The sensational Company Wang Ramirez also layered humor — and high heels — into their powerful, pancultural Monchichi. Korean-German Honji Wang and Spanish-French Sebastién Ramirez fuse genres and sample languages to capture the "big mess" of their collective familial influences. The gender dynamic, however, persists in their push-me, pull-you dance of attraction/aggression. The heels here are silver, chucked onto the stage along with a platinum wig and short dress. Wang wobbles in them uncertainly, until mastering them sufficiently to exploit their sexual power. In the end, she abandons them, and both dancers opt for sneakers. However their various upbringings have shaped this back-and-forth, Wang and Ramirez also remind us that the sexual divide has been there since the beginning of time, with Ramirez plucking a glowing red apple from a tree, which they both ingeniously appear to ingest.
Then over at the Gaillard, María Pagés Company's Yo, Carmen joyously, magnificently drove home the notion of feminine force by way of flamenco, demonstrating with unbridled energy that heels were made for vigorous stomping. The traditional trappings of womanhood were front and center, with the dancers covering ruffles with aprons, brandishing brooms, preening in mirrors, and, like Thierrée, bringing along a pocket book, this time with Pagés turning it into a veritable dance partner. She made her intention perfectly clear, taking from the bag a note, and reading it to the audience mid-performance. "We would like to dignify the women!" she announced, calling out mothers, friends, and others — and topping off each pronouncement with an exuberant show of her forthright, phenomenal heels. In the later part of the show, Pagés conjured Carmen in her trademark red finery, gilt headwear and all. As soon as she did, she then quickly took leave of them, paring away the manmade image of Carmen to reveal a woman framed only in a muted nude shift.
And then there was the gut-wrenching, excellent Angel, the take-no-prisoners account of a female Kurdish farm girl-turned-fighter written by the British satirist Henry Naylor. Brought to life by the transfixing Avital Lvova, the one-woman-show reveals to us the brutal fallout of power, as we are dead in the crosshairs of a woman sniper driving ISIS out of her town. In its vivid, gripping story of a Westernized young Syrian girl who goes from crooning Beyoncé to being a frontlines fighter leveling a loaded gun, Angel highlights the deadening effect of the ultimate act of aggression, that of killing another human.
Women appeared on stage in other ways, too. Waiting for Godot, the work of female director Garry Hynes, embued the play with a newfound humanity and depth of emotion. Even the all-male Afro-Cuban Pedrito Martinez Group got women into the act, inviting them all on stage for the final number and forbidding the men to join them. Whatever you might make of that particular gesture, they had many takers, of all shapes and ages, and more than a few heels clambering on the Cistern Yard stage.
Weeks ago, when I first heard of this year's lineup, it was clear female artists dominated the stage in impressive numbers. However, I went into opening weekend somewhat reluctant to shoehorn an entire festival into something as sweeping as gender. But I came to find out that the topic was writ large in piece after piece, across disciplines and from artists around the world. And speaking of large, I did pass through Slow Dancing in Marion Square on Saturday night, where projections of supersized dancers were blown up and slowed down. Folks had pulled up beach chairs, or were hanging in the grass when I went by. I'd recommend doing the same. It's also poignant evidence of Spoleto's ability to transform public spaces so that we can all benefit from the festival's endeavor and keep the arts prominent in our cityscape.
While Spoleto's general director Nigel Redden might eschew thematic programming, I welcome the happy accident that brought us a wealth of women-centric works of performing arts, and its rigorous thinking to Charleston's stages from far corners of the globe. When artists' voices converge so resoundingly, we would do well to listen up. At the end of the day, it didn't take a shoehorn this weekend to fill all of those loaded, enlightening high-heeled shoes.