With the festival underway, remembering some personal Spoleto highlights

I think the first Spoleto USA show that I saw was the opera Wozzeck by Alan Berg in 1997, a spare and stark production — a bit too spare and stark for me, especially after a big, rich dinner with friends.

I didn’t have a great time, either, at a performance of a minimalist orchestral piece by Steve Reich in 1998, but pretty much everything else I’ve seen at Spoleto has been exciting on some level.

In 1998, I also made it to Charleston (still kicking myself for not forcing a friend or two to come with me) for Rennie Harris Pure Movement, an absolutely electric all-male dance troupe that with break dancing and intense emotion captures the passion of the streets of Philadelphia. I had seen Rennie Harris perform in Philly a few years previously (I had even met him through Hiroko Kawai, a dancer with whom I used to work), so I knew that show would be amazing.

Laurie Anderson, "Homeland"

In 1999, I was stunned by the theatricality and beauty of Laurie Anderson’s Songs and Stories from Moby Dick. (Thanks to Jane Fishman for getting tickets and taking me along.) I had been a fan of Anderson’s mix of music and performance art since I first heard her back in 1982, but I did not expect something so grand, so powerful. In 2008 I went to see Laurie Anderson’s Homeland. I took a bit of a flyer on the seats in the unrenovated Memminger Auditorium: I bought two in the front row of a section that appeared from the seating chart to be in an awkward spot on the side of the stage. As it turned out, we were just off the stage, about 10 feet from Anderson. Before the show started, I spotted her husband Lou Reed sitting just over our left shoulders (not a bad day when your seats are better than Lou Reed’s), and about halfway through the intense, political performance, I realized there was an empty chair on stage right in front of us. That’s where Reed sat and played for the final few numbers, so close I could have reached out and touched his foot. But I restrained myself.

In 2002, actress Penelope Wilton stayed here in Savannah one night with my friend Bobby Zarem. I drove the two of them up to Charleston one afternoon in my shitty van. Bobby and I spent the afternoon over a casual lunch while Penelope met up with her co-star John Hurt for that night’s performance of Two Plays, a nod to Chekhov by Brian Friel. Wilton had a swollen cheek that we suspected was from a spider bite, but it didn’t show on stage. She was so easy and natural on stage, as was Hurt, and they were utterly charming when we joined them for a while at a pub after the show. On the latenight trip home, my van had a flat, and then the battery was dead after I changed the tire. Fortunately, a SC cop came by and let me get a jump from him, and Bobby remained surprisingly calm . . .

I don’t make it to Spoleto every year, but I make an effort to spend at least one day. Last year I made a couple of great choices for a Saturday trip.

"I Can See Myself in Your Pupil" by Gallim Dance

We don’t get to see much top-notch dance down here in Savannah, so I bought a couple of front row seats (anyone can do it!) for Gallim Dance’s I Can See Myself in Your Pupil, a multi-layered commentary on American esthetics, on suburban life, on love, on desire, on conformity — and on many other themes. But rather than seeming preachy or didactic or cluttered, the extended piece — a series of shorter numbers, often to uptempo music like Balkan Beat Box — was easy and beautiful. Wow, so good. And the renovated black box of Memminger Auditorium was a perfect home.

It’s notoriously difficult to get great video of performing arts like dance and drama, but check out this collection of highlights from the piece:

The pics here of Gallim, by the way, are screenshots from that video. I hope at some point to see Gallim director/choreographer Andrea Miller’s new piece Wonderland. Over the last year, I’ve spent more time trying to follow news from the dancing world, and I was thrilled to give a little press to Savannah native Caitlin Dutton, who choreographed a number of site-specific pieces that were performed in public spaces last summer, and to the Savannah Arts Academy Department of Dance, whose Winter Concert I reviewed here.

After the Gallim show, a friend and I lingered for quite some time at the brilliant Gaulart et Maliclet Cafe – Fast and French on Broad Street. Highly recommended for any Charleston trip.

And then we made our way to the Emmett Robinson Theatre for the Haydn’s marionette opera Philemon and Baucis, staged by the Colla Marionette Company. It was like a brilliantly made confection — light and airy and beautiful.

Humorously, I had also bought front row tickets for that show, but it turned out that we were on the only people in the front row. Since I literally could have reached out and snatched the baton from the pit conductor (again, I restrained myself), I suspect the Spoleto folks decided not to sell tickets in that row. But the seats were available on the day tickets went on sale online.

I’m going to a couple of shows next weekend, and will no doubt report eventually on what I see.