Ballet Austin’s ‘Firebird’ takes flight

One of Ballet Austin‘s most memorable efforts from the early 1990s was a popular but controversial 1993 staging of “Firebird” that featured, as arts writer Sondra Lomax drily put it: “a prison camp overseen by an evil warden who rides a motorcycle.”

Did we need that?

I remember it with fondness, however, because of performances in the title role by Nadya Zybine, whose fierce, compact presence onstage won’t easily be forgotten.

The next artistic director, Stephen Mills, followed with his own reinvention of the ballet in 2009. Mills stuck more closely to the aesthetic of Igor Stravisnky‘s revolutionary 1910 score.

Aara Krumpe as the titular character in Stephen Mills’ ‘The Firebird.’ This photo is from an earlier performance of the same Ballet Austin interpretation. Contributed

Ballet Austin revived this more compatible “Firebird” last week and paired it with Lar Lubovitch‘s 2007 “Dvorák Serenade,” which we’ll consider first.

In abstract segments that employed between two and 12 dancers, Lubovitch employs mathematical precision to portray various forms of romantic affection.

The choreography fit the company like a glove, in part because Lubovitch’s contemporary ballet vocabulary — which includes the liberal use of modern dance — seems closely related to Mills’ in the way that curves are elongated and repeated, physical connections are extended, and the patterns are rigorously completed.

Lubovitch’s emotional reticence keeps the audience at a distance, except for fleeting moments of tenderness, joy and, at the end, outright diversion. Ashley Lynn Sherman and Oliver Green-Cramer refined the purity of the ensemble’s movements into perfection as the lead couple.

In the much more dynamic “Firebird,” Mills staged the first scene — as Prince Ivan hunts then befriends the mythical creature — in a bold, muscular Russian Classical style, then switched over to a softer look out of the Romantic era for the entry of Tsarevna and her princesses.

The arrival of elaborately costumed Edward Carr as the evil Kastchei the Immortal changed the tone again to one that could have been borrowed from Asian theater. Eventually, all three styles were combined thrillingly in the climactic showdown.

As they did during the Dvorák, Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony kept the famous Stravinsky score tightly under rein.

Among the double-cast roles, Morgan Stillman embodied the epitome of a balletic prince as Ivan on Sunday, expertly foregrounding his two partners, while Chelsea Marie Renner delicately revealed the inner fortitude of Tsarevna.

Yet all eyes were on Aara Krumpe whenever she entered — and then dominated — the stage as the Firebird. Her form was all but flawless and her power breathtaking. You don’t expect to be moved by “Firebird,” but this time I was.

I think I found my new Firebird, 25 years later.

 

The mighty Austin Symphony is here to save the day

Now that the Austin Symphony has consummated Part 3 of its “Mighty Russians” series, it has completely shed its former reputation for underplaying big music. Almost to a fault.

Music director Peter Bay opened the formal part of the concert on Saturday with the bright and bold “Carnaval Overture” by Alexander Glazunov. Dismissed by some critics in the 20th century as merely “academic” — in other words, glib, predictable, conservative — Glazunov is also capable of great orchestral virtuosity. This rousing performance — a taste of what was to come at the Long Center for the Performing Arts — made me want to dive right into his eight completed symphonies.

Lise de la Salle. Contribute by Marco Borggreve

Sergei Rachmaninoff‘s Piano Concerto No. 1 is all about the soloist, but the ensemble is given plenty of opportunity to introduce and expand on the piece’s gorgeous themes and variations. French pianist Lise de la Salle did not shy away from the famous concerto’s showiness. Compact and contained when off the bench, in performance, she swayed and nodded, extended her arcing arms, attacked the keyboard like an avenging angel, then caressed it like tender companion.

At times, de la Salle’s hands appeared to blur over the complicated finger work. (“I can’t imagine what the score looks like,” said a friend during intermission.) Besides technical skill and fearlessness, she added some interpretive touches, such as startling hesitations and a certain playfulness with the composer’s unconventional rhythms. These seemed to bleed right into her delicately rendered encore selection: a Debussy Prelude.

“How are they going to top that?” said the stranger seated next to me after intermission.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky‘s “Manfred Symphony” is all over the place. Based on the poem by Lord Byron, it is at times unabashedly pictorial, at other times outright theatrical, always Gothic and so varied that a listener sometimes gets tangled in its taiga of melodies.

This is where we get to part about Austin Symphony’s plenteous sound. Remember back at Bass Concert Hall prior to 2008? “Manfred” would have shrunken to “Boyfred.” (Sorry.) Nowadays, the orchestra’s power rises, if not quite to the level of a major American ensemble, quite close, especially with the additional brass.

At times, it went right up to the point of excess. I felt a little pummeled. But that’s what “Manfred” calls for and the Austin Symphony delivered mightily.

Austin plans jubilee weekend for playwright Terrence McNally.

Terrence McNally, who grew up in Corpus Christi, ranks among the top two or three playwrights from Texas. In Austin, the Ransom Center at the University of Texas holds his papers, while Zach Theatre has become something of the official home for performances of his plays and musicals.

Distinguished playwright Terrence McNally. Contributed by Michael Nagle.

The two groups have teamed up to salute McNally on his 80th birthday with a weekend of activities.

Nov. 10: Theater backers and producers Carolyn and Marc Seriff give a special dinner for the playwright at their home.

Nov. 11: The Texas Union Theater will screen “Every Act of Life,” a documentary about McNally’s life. Zach artistic director Dave Steakley will interview the playwright from the stage afterwards. A reception will follow at the Ransom Center.

RELATED: ‘Ragtime’ is an American classic.

Nov. 12: Zach will present a birthday gala performance that will include actors Richard Thomas, F. Murray Abraham and John Glover. They will highlight the McNally’s career which includes Tony Award wins for “Love! Valour! Compassion!,” “Master Class,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “Ragtime.”

To RSVP and purchase tickets, visit www.zachtheatre.org/mcnally

Blanton Museum gives 500 artworks to 17 Texas museums

The Blanton Museum of Art is passing out of 500 works of art to 17 other Texas museums. These are part of the historic collection of 700 pieces transferred last year to the University of Texas museum from the Contemporary Austin. The Blanton will keep 200 pieces that match its current collecting strategies more closely.

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Margo Sawyer’s ‘Blue,’ 1998, detail of wood tempera and gold and silver leaf. Collection of the Grace Museum, gift of the Blanton Museum of Art, 2018, transfer from the Contemporary Austin, partial gift of the artist, with funds generously provided by ArtPace, A Foundation for Contemporary Art/San Antonio; Deborah and Tom Green; William F. Stern; Lee M. Knox, Juan and Carmen Creixell, and an anonymous donor.

In 2017, the rapidly growing Contemporary decided to part ways with its eclectic collection collected put together rather haphazardly by its predecessors, including the Laguna Gloria Art MuseumAustin Museum of Art, Texas Fine Arts Association and Arthouse. 

RELATED: What move of Contemporary Austin collection means to the Blanton.

Its leaders will concentrate instead on the Marcus Sculpture Park at Laguna Gloria and its “museum without walls” program that places art around the city. It will continue to stage temporary shows at its downtown Jones Center location.

RELATED: Austin museum picks winner of $800,000 art prize.

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Julie Speed’s ‘Portrait of Mr. Magritte,’ 2000. Gouache and collage on 19th century engraving 15 1/2 x 12 3/4 x 1 1/2 inches. Collection of the Witliff Collections at Texas State University, gift of the Blanton Museum of Art, 2018, transfer from the Contemporary Austin, purchase through funds provided by the Sarah and Ernest Butler Family Fund, 2002.

For its part, the Blanton continues to add to its collection of nearly 18,000 objects. It displayed some of the work transferred from the Contemporary in a special show that highlighted Texas and Austin artists, including UT grads Jules Buck Jones, Lance Letscher and Eduardo Muñoz Ordoqui.

Some of the works transferred to other Texas museums — hungry to have them — were pieces by distinguished artists such as Alexander Calder, Dorothy Hood, Luis Jiménez, Alex Katz and Robert Rauschenberg.

“As part of this large and thriving arts ecosystem, the Blanton is proud to support other Texas institutions in serving their communities,” Blanton director Simone Wicha says, “while also preserving this important collection of Texas art for future generations.”

Participating institutions included the Amarillo Museum of Art; Art Museum of Southeast Texas, Beaumont; Art Museum of South Texas, Corpus Christi, affiliated with Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi; the Grace Museum, Abilene; International Museum of Art & Science, McAllen; Kerr Arts and Cultural Center, Kerrville; Longview Museum of Fine Arts, Museum of Texas Tech University, Lubbock; Nancy Fyfe Cardozier Gallery, Odessa at the University of Texas Permian Basin; Pearl Fincher Museum of Fine Arts, Spring; Regional Arts Center, Texarkana; San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts; the Wittliff Collections and Texas State Galleries, San Marcos; Tyler Museum of Art; Visual Arts Gallery, Brownsville at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley; and Wichita Falls Museum of Art at Midwestern State University.

 

Play about professor with cancer is a moving look at death and how we live

The 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Wit” was the first and only play written by Margaret Edson, who has otherwise spent her career working as an elementary school teacher. That educational drive shines through in “Wit”, a moving meditation on death, and is a driving force behind the Austin Scottish Rite Theater’s new production of the drama, playing through Aug. 25 and co-produced by the Final Acts Project.

“Wit” at Scottish Rite Theater. Contributed

The play follows the final months of English professor Vivian Bearing as she undergoes treatment for ovarian cancer, in particular focusing on her relationship with Jason, a young doctor (and former student) obsessed with research rather than treatment; and Susie, a caring nurse who provides the only warmth in Vivian’s life. It’s no spoiler to mention that Vivian dies at the end; she says as much in her opening monologue, a direct address to the audience that forms the narrative spine of the play, weaving together her memories and fantasies with her real-life experiences in the hospital.

Director Susan Gayle Todd’s vision of “Wit” heavily implies that we are immersed within Vivian’s mind in her final moments, and that what we are seeing is her attempt to turn the physical, bodily experience of her death into one last lecture, akin to her career-defining exegeses of the metaphysical poems of John Donne. Todd and her design team (including lighting designer Deanna Belardinelli, costume designer Desiree Humphries, sound designer Chris Humphrey and scenic designers Leilah Stewart and Vicki Yoder) take advantage of the fact that the Scottish Rite Theater highly resembles a high school auditorium and create a fever dream-like melding of an academic setting and busy hospital.

AUSTIN ARTS : Find news and reviews about the local scene

The result is an off-putting yet immersive experience that re-creates Vivian’s conflict between giving up control of her own body and her obsession with being a respected academic and commanding teacher. Kristin Fern Johnson’s masterful performance perfectly rides the line between strength and despair, switching on a dime from a version of Vivian suffering in her hospital bed, begging for comfort, and an inner lecturer who wants to commandeer her final performances and refuses to stoop to maudlin sentimentality or needless humor.

This conflict is underscored by the study in contrasts provided by Delanté Keys’ Jason and Megan Ortiz’s Susie. While Keys matches Johnson’s poetic, philosophical musings in his awe over the majesty of cancer, Ortiz connects with her baser, more human moments, providing the caring succor that Vivian refuses to even acknowledge that she needs. Both relationships are developed in part thanks to an almost invisible added scene partner, the live music composed and performed by Darrel Mayers that provides a backing of emotional depth and resonance to a text that frequently elides such cathartic closure.

“Wit” is a complex text, addressing themes about control, academia, palliative care and the ways in which doctors sometimes treat patients with no more care than a professor taking apart the grammar of a poem. Austin Scottish Rite Theater faithfully captures all the nuance and intricacy of the play in a production that is, itself, full of a mixture of both heady intellectual wit and, in the end, simple human kindness.

‘WIT’
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Aug. 25
Where: 207 W. 18th St.
Cost: $15-$25
Information: brownpapertickets.com/event/3520845

Gov. Ann Richards hit returns to Zach Theatre

Zach Theatre has added Holland Taylor‘s “Ann,” a hit Broadway treatment of late Gov. Ann Richards, to its already announced 2018-2019 season.

Apparently, however, without Taylor in the title role. Casting to be announced later.

Holland Taylor played Gov. Ann Richards in “Ann” at Zach Theatre in 2016.

Taylor made a big splash at Zach in 2016 after researching the biographical play here, then testing an earlier, longer version of “Ann” at the Paramount Theatre prior to its regional and Broadway runs. While in town, she seemed to meet everyone, everywhere. Taylor could have run for local office. And won!

It will be directed by Benjamin Endsley Klein, director of the Broadway version “Ann,” and associate director of “Carousel” on the Great White Way.

RELATED: Holland Taylor brings back spirit of Ann Richards.

The play nudges forward by a few months “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” from the late summer slot to the winter centerpiece. It will play Jan. 23-March 3, 2019 at the Topfer. Kevin Cahoon, who played Hedwig in the 1998 version, will direct.

“Hedwig,” of course played Zach after its off-Broadway premiere and before its run on Broadway, here starring future marquee actor Andrew Rannells, now back on the Strand in the revival of “The Boys in the Band,” as well as Cahoon.

“Ann” then plays July 31-Sept. 8, 2019, also at the Topfer. For more information, call 512-476-0541 x1 or go to zachtheatre.org.

UPDATE: An earlier version of this post mixed up the directors of the two shows.

Austin artist, musician Steve Parker wins $15K Tito’s Prize

Big Medium, which marshals some of the city’s most precious visual art resources, could not have chosen a more timely winner for its $15,000 Tito’s Prize.

Artist and musician Steve Parker has won the 2018 Tito’s Prize. Contributed

A musician, artist and curator, Steve Parker has been involved in some of the city’s outstanding collaborative projects, beloved by the public as well as critics and colleagues, including work on the city’s much-discussed grackle population.

The prize comes with a solo exhibition at the Big Medium Gallery, Oct. 19-Nov. 18, as well as a key spot on the East Austin Studio Tour (Nov. 10-18).

Parker’s public art is embraced by just about everyone. Contributed by Philip Rogers.

RELATED: Zack Ingram won 2017 Tito’s Prize.

Three judges — Andrea MellardDennis Nance and Veronica Roberts, all arts insiders — joined voices in picking Parker.

Parker is also part of the Austin community fascinated by grackles. Contributed

RELATED: Sex, race and grackles — Fusebox Festival covers many moods.

“Parker exemplifies the way contemporary artists push beyond the boundaries of genres and media towards the pursuit of creativity,” Mellard says. “His strong artistic practice in new music performance, in sites ranging from parks to parking lots, has expanded into public sound sculptures and more recently installations. His generous approach brings together groups of trained performers and even invites curious members of the public to participate in his scores.”

SOMEWHAT RELATED: More Grackle Week 2018.

Dates set for 2019 Texas Medal of Arts Awards

The Texas Cultural Trust, an advocacy group, has set the dates for its next celebrity-sated Texas Medal of Arts Awards ceremony. The multi-part fandango — which is also intended to update state leaders on cultural funding — will take place Feb. 26-27 at the Blanton Museum of ArtLong Center for the Performing Arts and elsewhere in Austin.

Texas Medal of Arts dates set. A-List/Austin360

The group has had no trouble attracting big names — from Willie Nelson and Eva Longoria to Walter Cronkite and Debbie Allen — to the event. The most recent blow-out at Bass Concert Hall in 2017 was a highlight of the social season.

RELATED: Soaking up the glamour of Texas Medal of Arts.

The new event co-chairs are Leslie Blanton from the world of cultural philanthropy and Leslie Ward from the corporate (AT&T) halls of external and legislative affairs.

The group, now overseen by Executive Director Heidi Marquez Smith, has given out 108 medals since 2001 when the initial class of honorees was assembled at the Paramount Theatre. The evolving list of categories: music, film, dance, visual arts, arts patron (corporate, foundation and individual), media/multimedia, television, architecture, theatre, arts education, literary arts, design, and lifetime achievement.

 

For the first time in 10 years, Blanton Museum of Art raises ticket prices

The home of Ellsworth Kelly‘s “Austin” and Vincent Valdez‘s “The City” will soon become more expensive for some guests to visit.


RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

As of Sept. 1, the adult ticket price at the Blanton Museum of Art will increase from $9 to $12 and the senior price will increase from $7 to $10.

RELATED: UT unveils large-scale painting of Klan members

In comparison, top ticket prices at the Museum of Fine Arts-Houston are $23; San Antonio Museum of Art are $20; Dallas Museum of Art are $16; Fort Worth’s The Modern are $16; Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum are $14; SMU’s Meadows Museum of Art are $12

The Menil Collection in Houston and Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston are free. Also, the Kimbell’s magnificent permanent collection, as opposed to its special exhibitions, is free.

Admission to the Blanton remains free on Thursdays and to certain subsets of visitors. It also remains closed on Mondays.

Vincent Valdez’s work “The City” is on display at the Blanton Museum of Art. In a forum on Tuesday for the unveiling, Valdez talked about the quiet ubiquity of white supremacy in American life. Rodolfo Gonzalez for American-Statesman

RELATED: Ellsworth Kelly’s “Austin” worships light.

Complete price list as of Sept. 1:

Members: Free

UT Faculty/Students/Staff (with valid ID): Free

Adults: $12

Seniors (65+): $10

College Students (with valid ID): $5

Teachers (with valid school ID): Free

Youths (13-21): $5

Children 12 & under: Free

Active Military: Free

UPDATE: Added info about the Kimbell to this post.

Bernstein’s ‘Mass’ is nothing less than an Austin triumph

Leonard Bernstein‘s “Mass” is about nothing less than a profound loss of faith, Not just personal, but also national, even universal.

Premiering in 1971 during some of the most grim days of the Vietnam War, the great composer’s theatrical take on the traditional Mass structure was to deconstruct it and put it back together.

In this case, last week’s cover of Austin360 predicted the triumphant outcome.

He poses a saintly Celebrant against competing masses of singers, dancers and instrumentalists.

First one group, then others, and ultimately the Celebrant himself lose the comforts of faith and peace and smash the religious images that adorn the altar at the center of the stage. If this spirtual chaos can seem heart-rending today — and at the Long Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, it was — one can only imagine the effect on buttoned-up audiences right after the 1960s, a decade that tore apart conventional social norms on so many fronts.

No wonder its debut at the Kennedy Center was so controversial. Not only that, the two-hour spectacle that begins with Broadway-Bernstein’s “Simple Song” — sung too softly here — ricochets musically among Copland-Bernstein, Stravinsky-Bernstein and the sometimes unsettling High-Modernist-Bernstein.

RELATED: In a coup, Austin lands Leonard Bernstein marvel.

All this added up to an evening of almost overwhelming sensation, thanks primarily to Peter Bay, who has dreamed of conducting this towering piece since he witnessed the Kennedy Center premiere 47 years ago.

Let’s break it down:

  • Children’s choirs: The combined troupes, led by multiple directors, provided moments of joyful respite from the the heavier drama of “Mass.” Their brightly-clad innocence and sweet harmonies elicited an audible “aw” from the audience every time they appeared. Despite Michael Krauss‘s large, never crowded and gorgeously sacred set, the kids were by default and musical necessity required to cluster downstage. While stationed there, they were the stars of the show.
  • Bernstein100Austin Chorus: Placed upstage of the altar, this formidable group of singers, dressed for most of the action in dark robes, provided a sort of solemn anchor for everything else. Led primarily by Craig Hella Johnson of Conspirare, their sound was rock-solid and responded to whatever challenge Bernstein and Bay threw at them. It would be interesting to hear some of their sections done separately in concert. They would hold up.
  • Street Chorus: While the upstage choir blended into a whole, this group of two dozen or so singer-actors — dressed in street clothes and semi-seated to the side — injected particularized humanity into their roles. While they clearly represented some of the social subsets from the early 1970s, the performers made each part their own, thanks in part to stage director Josh Miller‘s efforts to distinguish each individual’s profile. Their solo meditations on faith and doubt really got the show’s near-operatic project rolling.
  • Dancers and Acolytes: Not having seen a stage version of “Mass” before, I could only imagine — or rather, struggle to imagine — the function of these mostly silent figures dressed in plain black-and-white cassocks. Yet, choreographed by Jennifer Hart, they kept the show in almost constant motion, delineating sections and amplifying the major themes. Included onstage were some of Ballet Austin‘s finest dancers, who know how to make movement into theater. If you don’t have the dancers, you don’t have “Mass.”
  • Celebrant: At first, baritone Jubilant Sykes provided the warm, soulful heart of the show. Wearing his vestments lightly and employing the full range of his stunning voice, Sykes tried to reach out and mend the rips in the social-sacramental fabric around him, not easy to do when there are 300 other performers around you. Yet when it came time for the Celebrant to break down and lose his personal connection to God, Sykes, defrocked in a solo spotlight, gave us a raw psychological study that could have been drawn from the most terrifying Greek tragedy.
  • Austin Symphony Orchestra+: Austin’s primary classical ensemble was supported by rock, jazz and marching band musicians. Yet they carried the preponderance of the musical weight triumphantly under Bay’s baton and, let’s be plain, they have never sounded more urgent or imperative. Especially during the interludes, they shed any mundane notion of constraints or equivocation. And as the audience made abundantly clear during the curtain calls, this was pinnacle so far in the career of conductor Bay. That’s not to say it’s downhill from here, but with this monumental “Mass,” all the participating Austin performing arts groups proved our city can aspire to almost anything. (And it made profit that will go back to the arts groups, says co-producer Mela Sarajane Dailey.)