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December 26, 2006

Of shoes and ships and sealing-wax — and all of the art that sticks in 2006

BY LEO ARTS WRITERSEmpujon: In August at 21C Museum Hotel, Louisville Ballet dancer David Ingram debuted Empujon, a new contemporary dance troupe that includes several members of the Ballet. Photo by Eddie DantDid the events and performances of 2006 make any difference in the overall vitality of Louisville’s arts scene? If so, how? Those who write about the arts for LEO took those questions to heart and surveyed the offerings served up to the public in 2006. Per usual, it was a smorgasbord, with fare ranging from the highbrow, such as Louisville Ballet’s showcase of pieces in its “Four for All” program, to lowbrow, such as the new city-sanctioned space for graffiti art on East Market Street. This range of choices encapsulates Louisville’s best attributes: a mix of creative organizations and events to serve almost any taste.That’s quite a feat considering that just a year ago the Louisville Orchestra was on the brink of bankruptcy. The months that followed revealed no panacea for all that ails the orchestra, but there were positive developments that seemed somewhat miraculous: The musicians agreed to a contract that reduces wages and benefits considerably, thus allowing the orchestra to reorganize. And Brad Broecker, a Louisville arts heavyweight who’d built up the Broadway Series, took the reins of administration and led a bold effort to increase the orchestra’s visibility, audience and earnings.LEO would love to see that kind of drive behind arts in all corners of the community, with matching resources and audiences to promote excellence. That’s the jumping off point for various assessments by LEO writers about the Year in Louisville Arts: 2006. —Elizabeth KramerCLASSICAL MUSICThe return of Jorge Mester: The Big Event for the Louisville Orchestra was bringing former music director Jorge Mester back to the symphony he once so ably led. (Mester succeeded Louisville Orchestra founder Robert Wagner in 1967 and lifted the group to what many believe are the finest notes it has ever produced.) After a long period of financial turmoil, dwindling audiences and uninspired performances, and in the midst of what seemed to be an interminable (and fruitless) search for a new director, the orchestra’s search committee suddenly pulled a conductor out of the hat. In a surprise announcement in August, Mester was signed to guide again the musical fortunes of the Louisville Orchestra. He has already conducted one concert here and will be more fully involved in upcoming seasons.  Now, the music is better, the audiences are enthusiastic, and the symphony seems to be surging back to life.Now if they only had a new place to play. That’s No. 1 on my wish list. — Bill DoolittlePlaying the repertory, right up to the minute: The Louisville Youth Orchestra has certainly achieved what its founders hoped: an opportunity for the area’s top school-aged musicians to play in a first-class, fully instrumented orchestra. (Three orchestras, in fact, from novice to most accomplished.) With full string sections, the orchestra can play music from the entire classical repertory — from Ludwig von Beethoven to Ferde Grofe.That repertory expanded this season when the orchestra performed a new piece by Joan Tower called “Made in America,” one of just four youth symphonies to premiere the work. Under the baton of director Jason Seber, they nailed it. (Note to veterans of Youth Orchestraspast: On the same November program, the LYO also performed the exotic “Capriccio Espanol.” At the end the kids were thrilled with their performance, just like we were — a few years ago.) — Bill Doolittle“Mors et Vita”: The musical event of Events was the Barry Bingham Jr.  Memorial Concert — not because the social register was out in force to honor the late Bingham, but because of the music. With a full orchestra, full chorus and four outstanding vocalists, producer Deborah Sandler and director James Rightmyer were able to present a major work called “Mors et Vita,” by Charles Gounod — and brought down the house at Comstock Hall. “Mors et Vita” is almost unknown in the classical repertory, but Bingham asked that the piece be performed as a free concert for the public after his death. Sandler said she could find no record of “Mors et Vita” being played previously in the United States. But after its success here, the 1885 piece might finally find its way into further performances. — Bill Doolittle Soprano singing in “Lucia”: Audiences raved about the raving Lucia di Lammermoor after soprano Angela Gilbert lifted the famous role of Lucia to spectacular heights during Kentucky Opera’s December staging. Ms. Gilbert carried the notes to the furthest reaches of cavernous Whitney Hall and delivered the drama of the tragic Lucia, finally gone mad with romantic despair, treating opera lovers to both the music and the acting. It was further proof that in classical music you usually get what you pay for. The highly acclaimed Gilbert commands a far higher fee than Kentucky Opera can normally can afford, but she and tenor Scott Ramsey were hired through the first grant from Campaign for Artistic Excellence, founded by Louisvillians Ian and Roberta Henderson. —Bill Doolittle THEATER For love of musicals: I confess, musical theater wasn’t one of my favorite things. But after this year, I now appreciate them for what they are — dramatic candy. And I’m a woman who loves candy! They may not be brain food, but they stick like taffy to teeth. Standouts this year include Music Theatre Louisville’s presentation of “Brigadoon”  on a pleasant late summer evening at Iroquois Park. With a superb sound system, lavish sets evoking the Scottish Highlands and bright kilts and finery, this production was a treat for the eyes and ears.  And the singing wasn’t bad either! Unforgettable performances include Dewey Caddell’s poignant rendition of “Come to Me, Bend to Me” and the dance solos of Robert McFarland and Amanda Lee Anderson. Other musical gems include anything done by Clarksville Little Theater, a diamond in the rough.The As-Yet-Unnamed Theatre Company’s presentation of “The Scarlet Pimpernel” had many rousing performances, especially the frightening “Madame Guillotine,” led by Gary Tipton. Edward Adamson’s portrayal of aristocratic Percy Blakeney, aka The Scarlet Pimpernel, was top- notch. I hope to hear Jennifer Poliskie’s beautiful voice again. — Sherry DeatrickMore love. Another standout was Actors Theater of Louisville’s season  opener, “My Fair Lady,” directed by Amanda Dehnert, who originated  this new version of the musical while associate artistic director of  Trinity Repertory Company. The production displayed a new dynamism by  immediately smashing the musical’s traditional staging — both  onscreen and onstage. With many Trinity Rep actors from Dehnert’s  original cast, this production transformed the stage of the Pamela  Brown Auditorium into a rehearsal space, complete with bare floors,  exposed brick, a piano and actors milling about while warming up  their vocal cords and stretching their limbs. While “My Fair Lady”  has been a crowd-pleaser for decades, this rendition was one of the  finest musicals Actors has staged in some time. — Dana Feldman  (formerly Norton)But seriously, folks: Turning to more serious drama, the ATL  production of August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean” was easily the best  of 2006. Filled with Vodoun imagery, Citizen Barlow’s ritual journey  to the City of Bones sent chills down my spine. Pat Bowie’s reading  of Aunt Ester, the 285-year-old crone, was sheer genius. Plot plays  second fiddle to myth here, a hallmark of great drama, as it calls to  the ancestors who live within us.Another ATL highlight was the flawless presentation of Chaim Potok’s  “The Chosen,” ostensibly a heartwarming story about two Jewish boys  but really a heated tug-of-war between proponents of Zionism and  those who question the wisdom of establishing a Jewish state before  the Messiah has appeared. —Sherry DeatrickDANCEHomecoming, part I: Of all the major performances I’ve seen, the  Louisville Ballet’s premiere of “Liturgy” was one of the most  mesmerizing. In early November, Wendy Whelan, a Louisville native and  New York City Ballet principal dancer, along with fellow principal  dancer Albert Evans, performed this intricate and physically  demanding piece by resident NYC Ballet choreographer  Christopher  Wheeldon. It required dancers to bend and wrap around each other in  ways that seemed to defy physics and push the limits of the body,  into complicated geometry while maintaining constant grace amid the  steady yet frantic rhythms of Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, for Violin,  Strings, and Percussion. The dancers elicited a highly deserved  standing ovation. It’s too bad the house wasn’t completely full; it’s  a shame for any arts or dance devotee to have missed this. —Elizabeth  KramerThe debutante of dance: The crown goes to Empujon, the new  contemporary dance troupe headed by Louisville Ballet dancer David  Ingram. He debuted his company and choreography in the gallery space  at the 21C Museum Hotel in August, to a standing-room-only crowd.  (Granted, that’s not much of a stretch as the space isn’t large  enough to accommodate a dance area and an audience. But there were  more than 150 people there to witness this significant event.)  Ingram’s pieces, performed by a talented company that included many  Louisville Ballet members, always maintained fluidity, even amid some  of the more jagged movements and a piece that incorporated a singer  and cello. At the foundation, all of his work included movements that  evoked emotion. The debut was promoted as a vehicle to “tease the  audience into a planned summer 2007 season.” LEO looks forward to  seeing what Ingram and company present once the weather warms. —  Elizabeth KramerVISUAL ARTThe new mistress: She’s visually stunning and pretty easy (yes, you  can stay the night for a price). She is the 21C Museum Hotel, an  unusual combination of hotel and contemporary art venue that opened  in March, to much heralding here and far beyond. The renovated  buildings at Main and Seventh streets gained notice from national  newspapers and magazines and a “Best of the Year 2006” award from  Interior Design magazine. Its rotating permanent collection is always  worth a look, since it’s practically guaranteed to prompt discussion,  and the temporary exhibitions, such as this fall’s offering of works  by John Waters, are thought-provoking. —Jo Anne TriplettSarah Lyon: who creates large-scale photographs, is blessed with an eye for the overlooked, ignored and shut out. Her contribution to The New Center’s “Nowhere” exhibition was the highlight.Homecoming, part II: Internationally known abstract artist Sam  Gilliam made his hometown one stop for his retrospective exhibition.  The Speed Art Museum was one of only four venues that featured the  show, which covered his 45-year career. The Corcoran Gallery of Art  in Washington, D.C., originated the retrospective, with more than 40  “greatest hits” that included his drapes, collages and constructions.  This exhibition illustrated Gilliam’s inventive techniques, which  prompt viewers to look at color, shape, texture and space in new  ways, and why he is one of the masters of contemporary abstract art. — Jo Anne TriplettSurviving on the scene: “Emerging” artists in Louisville have started  to receive a healthy amount of attention. But after the first “buzz”  is gone, some artists hit the hard wall of reality (especially in a  limited market like Louisville). Those who meet this title with  discipline, growth and maturity — such as Sarah Lyon and Letitia  Quesenberry — often outperform the original scene that launched them.Lyon’s work in The New Center’s “Nowhere” exhibition, organized by  the Speed’s Julien Robsen, seemed perfectly suited to the theme of  the show. In fact, her large-scale photographs seemed to do most of  the heavy lifting on that front. Without them, the exhibition, which  went to Graz, Austria and was on display in Louisville in the spring,  conveyed few serious impressions of what kind of place Louisville  really is. Lyon seems blessed with an eye for the overlooked, ignored  and shut out. You walk away from the photos humbled by how little we  look and how often we see even less. (An exhibition of new works from  Lyon opens Jan. 5 at Zephyr Gallery.)While the word “ideas” is a buzzword in the Louisville art scene, it  too often is used to imply that emotional expression, material  sensuality and artistic skill are somehow suspect, passe or  reactionary. The result can be art that is better in theory than as a  comprehensive human experience. Enter Letitia Quesenberry — who, yes,  has a lot of ideas — and demonstrates a high degree of skill and  extreme sensitivity to the use of her materials. Her show at Zephyr  in April showed that drawing is too often underestimated as a medium.  In her hands, you have to take it seriously. —Bruce LinnTaking it to the streets: The Experimental Urban Art Project, one of  the few legal graffiti art sites in America, opened in October.  Spearheaded by artist Jeral Tidwell and sponsored by the Mayor’s  Committee on Public Art, there is an ever-changing wall of color  bordering Market Street between Hancock and Jackson streets. If  Tidwell has his way, it will be part of the national — nay,  international — graffiti circuit, drawing the best the field has to  offer. The project has already spawned an offshoot; in early December  the “Fleur de Lis on Main” condominium development held a 10-day  graffiti event.Of shoes and ships and sealing-wax: Meanwhile, Louisville plays host  to events with speakers from the arts world beyond our borders and  some who used to live within them. One noteworthy event — let’s call  it the “under-the-radar” event of the year — was the Hite Art  Institute’s October lecture by David “Jelly” Helm. Helm made his  career in advertising, working on accounts for Nike and the like, but  during the lecture, it was the artists in the audience he won over.  You see, Helm is an articulate spokesman for ethics in advertising  and a champion for creative integrity. His get-out-the-vote campaign,  “We decide,” was moving. At turns charismatic, earnest and self- deprecating, he made you start to believe the system just might be  saved from within. On top of that, it was a homecoming: Helm received  his undergraduate degree from the U of L’s Hite and fronted the band  Led Pelvis in the mid-1980s, which played often at the legendary  Tewligan’s Tavern. —Bruce LinnADAPTATIONSThe year also witnessed a changing of the guard, as it were, of some  of Louisville’s arts administration corps. Besides the changes at the  Louisville Orchestra, the Kentucky Opera bid farewell to Deborah  Sandler and welcomed David Roth to the position of general director.  It also saw Scott Dowd take over as director of marketing and  communications from Steve Kelley, who consistently demonstrated his  passion for the art form while in Louisville. After Kelley took a job  with the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Dowd took over that role after  also working with the orchestra as a consultant during the past year.  This is just one sign of increasing cooperation between the  organizations that could help strengthen both.And over at Actors Theater, the community saw the retirement of long- time managing director Sandy Speer, who is rightly credited for his  work with Jon Jory to build the organization into the behemoth it is  in American theater today. His replacement, Jennifer Bielstein, comes  from Chicago, where she has been heralded for increasing  subscriptions. —Elizabeth Kramer