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09/14/2016
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Welcome Back, Performing Arts Season

It may be human to err, but it's also human to get things very right. That is, to pour devotion and diligence into a chosen endeavor until it is as close to perfect as possible. Just weeks ago in Rio de Janeiro, the world watched, mesmerized, as a multitude of athletes performed stunning physical feats. In the coming months and much closer to home, other types of performers — musicians, dancers, thespians, acrobats, comedians — will share their own varieties of near-perfection on smaller stages. And the rest of us will watch.

Hey, performing arts season: Welcome back!

From medieval music to cutting-edge jazz, from Broadway blockbusters to improv comedy, from gospel to guys on ice skates — yes, really — the range of human creative endeavors is astonishing. What drives people to perform? And why do we love to bear witness? We asked these questions of some local experts in the actor-audience equation: performing arts presenters. Their responses were thoughtful and spot-on.

Hilary Hahn
Macbeth
42nd Street
Marc Maron
No Strings Marionette Company
Mark Morris Dance Group and the Silk Road Ensemble
Momix: Opus Cactus
Guy Mendilow Ensemble: "Tales From the Forgotten Kingdom"
New Voices Series: S.I.N.siZZle, A2VT, Benny Nduwayo
Troker
Storm Large
Vincent Ségal, cello, and Ballaké Sissoko, kora
Bumper Jacksons
"Shatner's World: We Just Live in It"
Roger Guenveur Smith: Rodney King
"Ask a performer, and they'll say they can't not perform," said Margaret Lawrence, programming director at the Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth College. "It's urgent, compelling — it would be unthinkable not to. They certainly don't do it for the money," she added with a wry laugh.

Lawrence noted, too, that the interaction between performer and audience matters. "In an intimate setting — even in a big one — performers are aware of you. Performance is one art form that is simultaneously created and consumed."

"Telling stories is the base," said Steve MacQueen, artistic director of the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts. And, he added, the converse is true: "Everyone likes to hear stories."

Every performer is a kind of storyteller, even if their art form is nonverbal. With or without words, some shows evolve with a topical urgency. "FLEXN is a great example," said Lawrence, referring to the New York-based troupe that addresses issues of social and racial injustice — in particular, the police shootings of black men — through an electrifying form of street dance. "Their performance is created out of a sense that there was no other way for people to express the emotions of what's going on," she said. "It can bring people into this space that's different than just talking."

To that point, University of Vermont Lane Series director Natalie Neuert noted the fortuitous presence of "cultural journeys" in her programming this year. "I didn't set out to book world music, but the performers who really spoke to me were performers who traveled these distances," bringing a story from their part of the world, she said. "It's a conduit that carries a cultural history forward in time."

Neuert agreed that storytelling is "one of the most fundamental ways of receiving information and cultural understanding. Plus," she added, "it's sheer entertainment — you don't think about the clock for a couple of hours."

Witnessing virtuosity, of course, is thrilling and uplifting. And, as Neuert noted, "No matter how scripted, in live performance there's always a degree of spontaneity. I think people are excited by that."

But whether you're moved to tears by a violin solo or a standup comedian, the experience is different when it's shared. "The act of going out and gathering together, it's an ancient thing," observed Neuert.

"In this day and age, it's quite easy to just go home and make connections digitally," said Lawrence, "but that's not fulfilling a human need. It's really important to make human connections."

Pamela Polston

Guy Mendilow Ensemble: "Tales From the Forgotten Kingdom"

Saturday, October 15, 7:30 p.m., Lane Series at UVM Recital Hall, $10-30.

click to enlarge Guy Mendilow Ensemble - COURTESY OF GUY MENDILOW ENSEMBLE
COURTESY OF GUY MENDILOW ENSEMBLE Guy Mendilow Ensemble
In his mini-documentary about "Tales From the Forgotten Kingdom," international musician and composer Guy Mendilow describes the work as a "21st-century global take on beautiful old music and legends" about "vagabond queens, pauper poets and lovers lost to the sea."

The semi-theatrical performance is set in Mediterranean and Balkan communities that were largely destroyed during World War II. Its songs are sung in a nearly extinct Judeo-Spanish language of the Diaspora called Ladino, which Mendilow himself grew up singing as a boy in Jerusalem. Simultaneously mournful and joyous, these Sephardi melodies are sometimes as haunting as medieval prayers, at other times as raucously uplifting as an Israeli wedding reception.

The Guy Mendilow Ensemble is vibrantly percussive and melodic, composed of a truly international cast: Argentine vocalist Sofia Tosello; Americans Chris Baum on violin and Andy Bergman on woodwinds, jaws harps and electric mbira; and percussionist Tareq Rantisi of Ramallah, Palestine.

Mendilow, whose very surname sounds like a long-extinct musical instrument, is himself a man of the world, holding American, British and Israeli citizenships. Audiences come to this show, he says, to "embark on a journey to far-off times and faraway places. But through the experience, my hope is that they leave with a spark of fascination for cultures that are little known in this country."

Ken Picard