Thursday, July 24, 2014

Queen City Theatre Company rides again!


When Blumenthal Performing Arts decided last summer that Duke Energy Theatre would be available to local groups for only two consecutive weekends instead of three, two of its regular tenants -- Charlotte Shakespeare and Queen City Theatre Company -- went on hiatus.

Around Charlotte, that phrase can mean "into a deathlike coma." So I was glad to see Charlotte Shakespeare pop up last month at its appointed time on The Green uptown, doing "Love's Labour's Lost" outdoors. And I was glad to hear that QCTC is getting back on the Duke Energy boards Friday with "Things You Shouldn't Say Past Midnight." (That's the cast in the photo.)

I don't know Peter Ackerman's play, though I assume it's more transgressive than his script for the animated "Ice Age." He's creating a TV series named after this comedy, so he must figure it has legs. But I have missed QCTC's brand of all-encompassing outrageousness over the 2013-14 season, and I'm glad to hear it will follow "Things" with "The Performers" next month.

Officially, the mission statement at queencitytheatre.com says the company "wishes to present theater that celebrates the many different races, religions, genders, and sexual orientations that exist in both Charlotte and the world." Founders Glenn T. Griffin and Kristian Wedolowski have spotlighted characters seldom seen at local theaters and asked us to listen to voices that are rarely heard, whether in musicals ("Side Show," "Grey Gardens"), dramas ("Bent") or comedies such as this one. They have inevitably provoked thought and frequently provoked comment, pro or con.

An old adage says the duty of a newspaper "is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." That's true in a different way of live theater, which can simply amuse us but more worthily gets us thinking about things we take for granted. Queen City can be counted on to do that.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Hey, Charlotte: Bring on the noise!

Did you see the story in Sunday's paper, explaining that a committee had come to town to advise leaders on how to make Charlotte a more interesting, less psychologically gray city? We were described as being "suit-y" and having a low "funk factor."

Well, the picture above comes from America's funkiest city. I took it Saturday afternoon in Central Park, a place where I heard at least a dozen languages and saw nearly as many skin tones on a two-hour stroll -- much of it within sight of the skyscrapers, as you can tell.

I saw this guy swirling a net through the air and making bubbles of immense size and multifarious shapes. I heard an elderly Chinese man playing traditional music on the zhong-hu, a stringed instrument he called a little brother to the better known erhu. (Later, I came across another Chinese man playing "Oh Susannah" on an erhu.) I saw woman painting elaborate face tattoos for $5, a living statue pretending to be Lady Liberty, guys in the distance forming some kind of loose-knit drum circle.

Mostly, I saw chaos.

A great city has to have room for a sensory mess once in a while. It can't prescribe a few street corners for buskers (not that we get them much in Charlotte anyhow) or designate one out-of-the-way corner for speakers or invite a single artist to some pocket park for an afternoon.

We have nothing as glorious as Central Park, with its antique carousel and sprawling Sheep Meadow and a tract of marsh that seems to make the city vanish. I stood at the edge of that bank, watching ducks and turtles dipping and sunning themselves, and I saw a white egret soar over the trees. Of course, then I looked down and saw an audacious rat foraging for crackers about four feet from my toes. (Perhaps that's the full New York experience: an egret and a rat.)

But if we want funk, we're going to have to stop worrying about controlling every aspect of it. As cities go, Charlotte seems OCD about order and neatness. And nobody has fun at a party where the host runs around constantly, fretting about whether a guest dropped a cheese stick on the rug.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

King of the New York Streets

That was the name of a single released by Dion DeMucci, who turns 75 next Thursday. But he earned his spot in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame with stuff like this:



When he was in his 20s, few people thought Dion would get to 45, let alone 75. He was a heroin addict whose early successes had been many but brief, and he'd tapped out by the mid-1960s. Then he cleaned himself up and cut "Abraham, Martin and John," a soulful tribute to three slain civil rights figures, which sold more than a million records in 1968 and revived his career. Here's a version with Aaron Neville from the show "Nashville Now:"



I pay tribute to Dion partly because he was a key figure in doo-wop music, a genre I have always loved, and partly because he's a seminal guy in rock history: Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen and Lou Reed have acknowledged him as an influence on their careers.

But I also salute him because of his quintessentially American ability to reinvent himself. First he led a doo-wop quartet, the Belmonts. Then he took off as a solo singer with the likes of "Runaround Sue" and "The Wanderer." He disappeared, then came back as a folk singer. After his escape from addiction, he became a born-again Christian and won a Dove Award for his 1984 album "I Put Away My Idols."

He took secular music up again, returned to the faith he'd practiced in his Bronx boyhood and became a Roman Catholic. He served for a while on the American board of directors for Renewal Ministries and, according to Wikipedia, took up prison ministry -- and, in 2012, released an album called "Tank Full of Blues."

Three years ago, he was collaborating with playwright Charles Messina on a musical titled "The Wanderer: The Life and Music of Dion." He described it to a New York Times writer as "a rock 'n' roll redemption story." Against many odds, the tale of Dion DiMucci had a happy ending, after all.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The saddest story in American ballet

Tanaquil LeClercq was exhausted. She faced a wearying transatlantic flight with the other members of New York City Ballet and feared a vaccination might further weaken her. So she decided to forgo the inoculation most of the troupe was getting, a shot of Jonas Salk's recently developed polio vaccine.

She began that 1956 tour as a principal dancer at NYCB, an inspiration to master choreographers George Balanchine (who had made her his fourth wife) and Jerome Robbins. She ended it in a wheelchair, never to walk again.

Documentary maker Nancy Buirski has told her story in "Afternoon of a Faun," now playing on PBS stations nationally in the "American Masters" series. (It premieres on Thursday at 8 p.m. on UNC-TV. It's already running on South Carolina's ETV: The next time is 4 a.m. Monday.) Here's a sample:


If Buirski's name sounds familiar, you may know her as co-founder of the DoubleTake Documentary Film Festival -- now called "Full Frame" -- in Durham. This is her fourth feature film as producer, her second as writer-director (after "The Loving Story").

She has collected remarkable footage of LeClercq, and you can watch some of it at American Masters. LeClercq's swanlike neck, flexible arms and extraordinarily long legs lent themselves to comedy, drama or romance. Sometimes she was both serious and comic by turns in the same piece, as in Robbins' "The Concert." (He dropped the work when she could no longer dance it.)

The Paris-born ballerina had a rare command of styles: She could be alluring yet distant in Robbins' "Afternoon of a Faun," remain elegant in Frederick Ashton's "Illuminations" or whoop her way through dance-hall merriment in Balanchine's "Western Symphony." She even experimented with Merce Cunningham's modern work in 1949, a year after she became a charter member of NYCB.

This all came to an end before her 28th birthday. She went to bed in Copenhagen, weak and shaking, after a performance on NYCB's gruelling European tour. She awoke without the use of her legs.

Besides celebrating LeClercq's greatness, Buirski poses the question every dancer finally has to ask: What do I do when I have always defined myself by physical grace and skill, and my body no longer responds to my will?

Few dancers have had to wrestle with that question as suddenly as LeClercq did, and none so publicly. After a long period of depression, she redefined herself as a teacher. Former NYCB colleague Arthur Mitchell, who co-founded Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969, invited her to teach there. She did so from a wheelchair, using her arms to demonstrate steps.

Every athlete -- and dancers are athletes -- eventually asks that question. Think of NFL Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett, who's dealing with chronic traumatic encephalopathy and reduced brain function, or Muhammad Ali struggling with Parkinson's disease.

In fact, everyone who has chosen a beloved career and been forced to give it up wrestles in a way with that dilemma. What am I after I stop being a teacher, a journalist, an electrician, a physician? "Afternoon of a Faun" explores a profound artistic tragedy. But in some small way, it's about millions of us who've been pierced by a sliver of the same sadness.

Monday, June 16, 2014

A century of brilliant Irish words

If you consider "Dubliners" the greatest short-story collection in the English language -- as I do --- you must regret not being in New York City tonight. Symphony Space will hold its 33rd Bloomsday, an annual tribute to the language of Irish author James Joyce.

The day often commemorates "Ulysses," the novel about Leopold Bloom that takes place on June 16, 1904. (That's the day Joyce had his first outing with Nora Barnacle, whom he'd eventually marry.) This year, though, it's devoted to "Dubliners," a collection of 15 stories that came out 100 years ago this month.

The last and longest of those, "The Dead," became a movie directed by John Huston just before his death in 1987. (His son Tony wrote it; his daughter Anjelica starred in it.) Here's the final scene of that film, in which a man (played by Donal McCann) realizes his marriage and career have begun to slip away from him, perhaps forever:




The performers reading "Dubliners" at Symphony Space won't act it out. They'll simply let his beautiful, pungent, funny language roll along and speak for itself. Joyce was born into the middle class in that Irish capital and set the stories among the children and adults he knew so well.

Before publishing it at 32, he was an obscure poet whose one volume ("Chamber Music") had come out seven years earlier. "Dubliners" won critical approval, prompting him to finish "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" in 1916. More poems, the play "Exiles" and the novels "Ulysses" and "Finnegans Wake" followed over the next 23 years.

"Dubliners" remains the easiest of the prose works to read; Joyce hadn't yet begun to experiment with language or deconstruct characters, and the settings are almost all realistic. Yet his insight into peoples' fears, sadness, comic self-importance, loneliness and struggles to be noticed was already keen. If you don't know this book, don't reach the 101st Bloomsday without making its acquaintance.

Friday, June 13, 2014

One man, one dream, one movie

You have to like a guy who calls his company Just a Spark Films. Must be a moviemaking metaphor: You need a spark of inspiration to light a fire and months of sweat to keep it burning.

Don Johns is what French critics like to call an auteur: He's the "author" of "Do No Harm" in the truest sense. He wrote, directed and produced this debut feature, did his own cinematography, edited it after shooting and even composed the score. Here's the trailer:




He shot the film around Troutman. Like many an artist with a small budget and a yen to do a full-length project, he chose a familiar genre (horror) and set it in places where he wouldn't have a big construction budget: a rural house, a convenience store, an eatery off the interstate.

Johns begins in the usual way: Four friends (roughly of grad student age) take a road trip that carries them away from the highway and into trouble. When the "check engine" light goes off in their car, they ask for help at a solitary house. A wheelchair-bound father and his strangely glum son tell them the vehicle can be fixed in the morning and offer them shelter. But what's going on in the shed out back?

One development may catch you by surprise, but this isn't the kind of film that relies on plot twists. Johns wants to make our flesh creep by establish a menacing atmosphere, catching us off-guard or teasing us with camera angles. (One long tracking shot works especially well.) I liked the touch of the "Dies Irae," the ominous eight-note motif Rachmaninov inserted into most of his orchestral pieces, on the soundtrack.

You'll learn more about the movie here. Johns has been selling DVDs directly but says he has just signed a distribution deal with Panorama Entertainment, which means wider circulation for "Do No Harm." I always like to see a realized dream being shared with the world.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

First the killing, then the music

John Allemeier has just released a compact disc titled "Deep Water: The Murder Ballads" on the Albany Records label, which is devoted mainly to work by living classical composers. Allemeier, associate professor of composition at UNC Charlotte, wrote this hour-long set of three pieces for a performance last year, in which dancer/choreographer E.E. Balcos created three works based on famous folk tunes about violent death. Here's a sample:



The album's a Charlotte-centric project. It's performed by local musicians, notably flutist Erinn Frechette and violinist Jenny Topilow; it was recorded at Acoustic Barn Studios and mastered by Rick Dior. (Allemeier produced it himself.)

And all three of the ballads used ("Poor Ellen," "Pieces of Silver" and "Omie Wise") come from North Carolina slayings. In the first, a lover shoots the woman he wants to quit. In the second, an abused wife turns her husband's gun on him, allegedly as he's planning to plug her in a drunken rage. (Both perpetrators were hanged.) In the third and most famous ballad, retitled "Deep Water" here, a man indicted for drowning a woman near Asheboro served 47 days in jail -- not for killing her, but for breaking out of prison while awaiting trial.

James Grymes' comprehensive liner notes provide guides to both the history of these songs and Allemeier's compositions. Though the music springs from murder, it's seldom violent: He uses a string quartet in "Ellen," a mixed ensemble in "Silver" and an assortment of winds with piano in "Water." The sounds are frequently melancholy and reflective; Allemeier isn't so much depicting the acts of the characters as their states of mind before, during and after their misdeeds. (Murder ballads often depict the perpetrators' remorse.)

I didn't see the live performance, so I can't tell you how effectively it reworked its source material. But the music suggests deep emotional waters indeed.