ArtsATL > Dance > Preview: Going to Spoleto? Our critics pick their favorite things to see and hear

Preview: Going to Spoleto? Our critics pick their favorite things to see and hear

Composer Phillip Glass will debut a new opera at this year's festival.
Philip Glass’ opera “Kepler,” about the man who figured out the motions of the planets, will have its American premiere at this year’s festival.

A world staged premiere of a contemporary Chinese opera, a Philip Glass opera that’s new to the U.S., Alvin Ailey’s classic modern dance and Cedar Lake’s contemporary ballet are a few of the offerings at this year’s Spoleto Festival USA, the performing arts fête that will run for 17 days amid the historical elegance of Charleston, South Carolina.

With its international reach, the annual festival attracts plenty of media attention, but critics who cover just one artistic discipline — whether theater, classical music, dance or jazz — often miss the point. It’s all about the mix, the juxtaposition of performances from across genres, festival General Director Nigel Redden said in a telephone interview. In Charleston’s charming, pedestrian-friendly setting, audiences are able to see the arts in a new light. In keeping with the utopian vision of composer Gian Carlo Menotti, who founded the “Festival of Two Worlds” in Spoleto, Italy, in 1958, Redden has kept its 36-year-old American offshoot multi-disciplinary. The 140-plus performances being staged from May 25 to June 10 are chosen to reinforce one another.

Behind Redden’s programming is a passion for presenting works by innovative, top-notch artists, both established and emerging. He seeks out works that are not only entertaining and attractive to audiences, but also “deeply important in what is going on in the arts in America or in the world.”

Here’s a look at what to expect.

Mike Daisey will perform his controversial “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.”

THEATER

Shortly after the festival announced its 2012 lineup, monologuist Mike Daisey and his little show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” became the subject of a huge controversy. The piece, which describes inhumane conditions Daisey encountered on a trip to China to visit factories that make Apple products, caught the attention of National Public Radio, whose show “This American Life” broadcast his performance in January. The episode went viral on the Internet, quickly becoming one of the most popular episodes of the show ever. But it turned out that some of Daisey’s details, including his description of meeting poisoned factory workers, were made up. “This American Life” retracted the entire story in March, and a debate raged: where does artistic liberty end and journalistic integrity begin?

“The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” is slated for four performances at Spoleto May 31 to June 5.

Daisey has never shied away from controversy or harsh self-examination in his monologues, so it will be fascinating to see his take on these events and how they’ve become part of the show itself. He’ll also perform his monologue “Teching in India,” about his travels around that country, for one performance on June 5.

Those who can’t get enough of monologues will also want to check out NPR journalist Jack Hitt’s “Making Up the Truth,” opening May 25, in which he weaves together stories from his own life with astonishing findings from the world of brain science (no offense intended to Daisey with the title, we’re sure).

Less controversial, but no less intriguing, will be performances of the classically sophisticated Noël Coward comedy “Hay Fever” by the venerable Gate Theatre of Dublin, which opens May 24 at the elegant and intimate Dock Street Theater. At the other end of the spectrum, starting May 25, the London-based 1927 theater company will present “The Animals and Children Took to the Streets,” which — like their 2008 festival hit “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” — uses an innovative combination of live performance and projected animation.

The festival also is offering two productions of what it calls “physical theater,” a new but growing festival category in which performers typically blend Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatics with avant-garde performance art. “Leo,” beginning May 24, by German company Circle of Eleven, features a protagonist exploring a world in which gravity has shifted, and “Traces,” by Quebec company Les 7 Doigts de la Main, will mix personal narratives with acrobatics in seven performances starting June 6.

New York-based Cedar Lake is known for its use of European choreographers.

DANCE

Among this season’s four featured dance troupes, Cedar Lake stands out. The nine-year-old, New York-based company is known both for its exquisitely trained, emotionally available dancers and for its repertoire, mostly by European choreographers rarely seen in the United States.

Cedar Lake will perform its second commission by Israeli-born former Batsheva dancer and musician-composer Hofesh Shechter. Now based in Britain, Shechter, 37, is one of the most watched young choreographers on the European contemporary dance scene. His piece “Violet Kid” is infused with an internally sourced fluidity showing Ohad Naharin’s influence, but it carries Shechter’s unique voice. The program also will feature “Grace Engine” by Crystal Pite, also much watched in Europe, and “Annonciation,” an inventive, tender and lush duet by Angelin Preljocaj to Stephane Roy’s “Crystal Music” and Vivaldi’s “Magnificat.”

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater will return to Gaillard Auditorium; this is the festival’s last season in that venue until after a two-year renovation. Because the Ailey troupe performed at Spoleto in the festival’s earliest years and has returned regularly since, Redden brought it in “as a kind of valedictory” for the theater, he said.

Offerings will include Robert Battle’s “In/Side” and Ohad Naharin’s “B: Minus 16.” Seattle-based Zoe/Juniper, seen in Atlanta in last January’s “Off the EDGE” festival, will perform the genre-blurring dance and video work “A Crack in Everything.”

Most noteworthy, though, after Cedar Lake may be Kyle Abraham, a fast-rising talent on the New York dance scene. His “The Radio Show” was performed at Emory University in February. Set to an audio collage of hip-hop, classic soul, contemporary compositions and bursts of radio static, this signature work mines Abraham’s personal history and combines these narratives with a movement style that’s fearless and intimate, yet physically intense. Through juxtaposition, the flavors blend into a work of startling revelation.

The Bank of America Chamber Music Series, at the Dock Street Theatre, has long been the musical backbone of Spoleto USA.

MUSIC

The marquee event of this year’s festival is the opera “Kepler” by American composer Philip Glass, in its first staged U.S. production and the world premiere of its English-language version. “Kepler” will be performed four times at the College of Charleston’s 785-seat Sottile Theatre.

The two-hour, two-act opera explores the imaginings of 17th-century astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler in his quest to reconcile science and religion through musica universalis (“music of the spheres”). The libretto by Martina Winkel, sung in both English and Latin, draws largely upon Kepler’s own writings.

Baritone John Hancock stars as Kepler, with the roles of six scholars sung by sopranos Anne-Carolyn Bird and Leah Wool, mezzo-soprano Kathryn Krasovec, tenor Gregory Schmidt, baritone Dan Kempson and bass Matt Boehler. Sam Helfrich is stage director for the production, with a set by Andrew Lieberman, costumes by Kaye Voyce and lighting by Aaron Black. John Kennedy, resident conductor for Spoleto USA, will lead the performances. Opening night is Saturday, May 26, with additional performances May 28, May 31 and June 2.

The musical backbone of the festival has long been its Bank of America Chamber Music Series, at the Dock Street Theatre. This year, the series offers 11 programs performed three times each, with performances twice daily over the course of the festival. Each performance lasts approximately 70 minutes.

Violinist Geoff Nuttall oversees a rotating roster of artists, including his own group, the St. Lawrence String Quartet, which has essentially become the series’ house band. The newcomer this year is violinist Jennifer Frantsci, known for being equally adept at classic repertoire and contemporary works.  MacArthur Award-winning cellist Alisa Weilerstein retirns, as do pianists Pedja Muzijevic, Stephen Prutsman and Inon Barnatan. These concerts are all during daytime, with performances at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.

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