To Infinity and Beyond!

2001 saw Austin artists on -- what else? -- space odysseys

Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick told us the year would be like this: Thirty-three years ago, they pegged 2001 as a space odyssey. And while they may have missed the bull’s-eye on that whole manned expedition to Jupiter thing, they hit it dead-center where Austin arts companies are concerned.

The year saw numerous local cultural types leave their homes on journeys. Some traveled to other communities, sharing their art and expanding the audience for it beyond the hometown crowd. Others merely crossed from one part of town to the other, but did so taking creative risks that paid off in exceptional ways.

New York City was the destination of choice for many of these arts travelers. The Rude Mechanicals took the town by storm with their adaptation of Lipstick Traces; Vortex Repertory Company won more than a few hearts with Despair's Book of Dreams and the Sometimes Radio; and master jugglers the Flaming Idiots managed the neat trick of charming Broadway a second time with What Goes Up. Playwright/performer Ruth Margraff and choreographer/dancer Deborah Hay both played the Brooklyn Academy of Music (Margraff with her FronteraFest piece Judges 19: Black Lung Exhaling, Hay dancing with Mikhail Baryshnikov and the White Oak Dance Project). The MOMFest Pipeline Project sent REALM Dance Project, Laura Somers, and Chris Alonzo to the New York International Fringe Festival. Playwrights Colin Swanson and John Walch had works read and staged there, and director Jason Neulander staged a reading.

But the Big Apple wasn't the only place to win firsthand looks at Austin art. Dallas also got to see Margraff's Judges 19, and cities from coast to coast enjoyed Hay and the White Oak dancers. Louisville caught the second run of Allen Robertson's Jouét. Los Angeles was treated to productions of plays by Walch, Dan Dietz, Tom White, and Tom Grimes. Minneapolis was host to Dietz and Swanson, who took new scripts to new levels via the Playwrights' Center. And Seattle and Wilmington, Del., both got visits from Dietz, who was all over the map this year.

Meanwhile, at home, several companies were making noteworthy ventures into new locales. Austin Lyric Opera turned City Coliseum into a gypsy village for its dynamic staging of Carmen. Chad Salvata and the Vortex gang found a new playground in an old airplane hangar, where they created a mesmerizing Hyper Zoo displaying historical and mythological figures. Sally Jacques, who has made a career out of exploring new spaces, also invaded an airplane hangar, where she led audiences into Ascending Fields of Air. In the realm of future spaces, the Blanton Museum of Art finally settled on a design for its new home (mainstream to a fault), and Arts Center Stage unveiled its model for the one of the city's most eagerly anticipated spaces, the Long Center for the Performing Arts (thrilling).

There were personal odysseys, too, as various leaders of cultural institutions took their leave of them to seek out new challenges. Vicky Boone, Pat Jasper, and Robi Polgar all left companies they founded (Frontera, Texas Folklife Resources, and the Public Domain, respectively). Elizabeth Ferrer resigned as director of the Austin Museum of Art, Cindy Goldberger stepped down as managing director of Sharir + Bustamante Danceworks, and Ben Bentzin resigned as chairman of Arts Center Stage.

These journeys were far from the only significant happenings on the cultural scene -- can we possibly forget the yearlong travails of the Austin Arts Commission? -- but they stand out, for the way they reveal the growing prominence of Austin on the national arts scene and, even more importantly, the way they reinforce a key quality in this city's artists: their explorer's soul. It is what leads them to be constantly developing new work, to experiment with space and form, to venture into unknown territory. If there is a final frontier, our artists will go there. end story

<i>Big Love</i>
Big Love (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

Top 10 (That's Really 14) Wonders of the Stage in 2001

1. Big Love (Rude Mechanicals) A big rush. Chuck Mee's riff on The Suppliants was an invigorating whirl of debates over gender politics, justice, loyalty, and the ascendancy of the heart in human affairs, fired with a vibrant physicality (riotous dances, slamming bodies, food fights) -- in short, a show tailor-made for the Rudes. Guided by director Darron West, this fierce tribe charged the play with energy, conviction, and wit, creating one heady, exhilarating dance.

2. Oklahoma! (Austin Musical Theatre) A vision of Rodgers & Hammerstein's frontier territory as sweet and bracing as a spring breeze on the open prairie. AMT's Scott Thompson and Richard Byron scraped away six decades of history weighing down this classic and recovered its freshness. A cast of exceptional verve, epitomized by Noah Racey's ebullient Will Parker.

3. Jouét (Zachary Scott Theatre Center) This saga of a globetrotting pop star whose life is emotionally and literally up in the air was a soaring triumph for composer Allen Robertson, a search for self in the modern world told with wit, ingenuity, and heart. As the titular diva, Meredith McCall hit the runway like a jet on take-off and rode the show into the heavens.

4. Cold Sassy Tree (Austin Lyric Opera) Another American opera brought to inspiring life by ALO. Composer Carlisle Floyd took us right to the heart of a Georgia town through his richly drawn characters, abundant humor, tenderness, and music with the smell of Southern soil in it, and a fine cast, headed by a thundering Dean Peterson, held us there, charmed.

5. Ascending on Fields of Air (Sally Jacques) Bodies suspended in space. Figures climbing scaffolds. Great doors sliding open to reveal the night sky. In an abandoned airplane hangar, Jacques, Austin's empress of site-specific performance, and an outstanding team of collaborators created something beautiful and poetic, a mystic communion with the heavens.

6. The Circumference of a Squirrel (Zachary Scott Theatre Center) Yes, another one-man show and, yes, another son who has issues with his father, but John Walch's script, with its cosmic wit and illuminating detail, made it fresh and compelling, and Martin Burke invested so much of himself in its performance as to make you feel his heart beating in your chest.

7. Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief (iron belly muses) and Anna Bella Eema (Refraction Arts Project/Physical Plant Theater) In a year noteworthy for strong all-female casts, these shows took top honors. Sterling ensemble work by Holly Babbitt, Lee Eddy, and Tamara Beland, and Deanna Shoemaker's cheeky direction made Desdemona, Paula Vogel's take on Othello, a surprising, funny, and deeply human exploration of tension between the sexes, the classes, and friends. With Anna Bella Eema, a wondrous team -- writer Lisa D'Amour, director Katie Pearl, and actors Jennifer Haley, Paula Rester, and Stephanie Stephens -- tapped something rich and strange; their dense, enigmatic odyssey through a haunted trailer-park world was haunting.

8. Wallpaper Psalm and Tilt Angel (Salvage Vanguard Theater) A pair of magical mystery tours inside the heads of some offbeat characters, both smartly staged by Jason Neulander. An intense score from Golden Arm Trio, Ruth Margraff's deliberately disoriented text, production designs creating a stark, spectral space, and fierce, fearless performances evoked in unsettling fashion the unsettled minds of Wallpaper Psalm's elderly heroines. Dan Dietz's imaginative script, salted with spectacularly florid dialogue rich in regionalisms and humor, revealed the shape of grief inside Tilt Angel's loquacious Tennessee simpleton, a figure made splendidly real by Jason Phelps' blazing performance.

9. Jelly's Last Jam (Zachary Scott Theatre Center) Director Dave Steakley's re-creation of the birth of jazz boasted plenty of New Orleans heat, sweat, creole spice, and sweet, sexy soul, plus a furious, astonishing performance by Ronn K. Smith as Jelly Roll Morton.

10. Lypsinka! The Boxed Set (Zachary Scott Theatre Center) The Spirits of Divas Past -- Crawford, Davis, Garland, Merman, and their ilk -- channeled through John Epperson's divine alter ego with almost otherworldly skill, to sublimely hilarious effect.

11. Requiem for Tesla (Rude Mechanicals) The neglected genius returned to life, like Frankenstein's monster in a Universal film, via vivid theatricality, melodramatic flourishes, performances verging on the operatic, and lots of electricity. It was alive!

12. Romeo and Juliet (Ballet Austin) Though Shakespeare's lovers never spoke a word in this balletic version, there was poetry just the same, in Stephen Mills' dramatic, elegant, eloquent choreography and his company's lively, lovely dancing.

Honorable Mentions

Art (Zachary Scott Theatre Center)

Hyper Zoo (ethos)

Ann Hampton Callaway (Austin Cabaret Theatre)

The World Goes 'Round (Zachary Scott Theatre Center)

.com and JASS (Tapestry Dance Company)

The Chairs (State Theater Company/Actors Repertory of Texas)

<i>Jelly's Last Jam</i>
Jelly's Last Jam

Top 10 Performing Arts Moments That Linger in the Memory

(In no particular order):

1. Rinat Shaham in Carmen (Austin Lyric Opera) As the dark, outrageously sexy, intensely commanding gypsy girl and smoldering title character, Shaham fanned the flames with dancing and singing that were equally hot.

2. Palestrina and Pärt (New Texas Music Works) Three singers of the phenomenal Conspirare Choir put voice to Arvo Pärt's "And One of the Pharisees" with haunting effect in the ethereal Carillon.

3. The End of Wit (State Theater Company) Megan Cole's defiant but cancer-doomed Dr. Vivian Bearing punctuated a striking production with a final, transcendent image of a body free and soaring in David Nancarrow's heavenly light.

4. Gray Haddock as Septimus Hodge in Arcadia (Austin Playhouse) Comic timing, intelligence, a commanding presence, that voice: what a welcome return to the Austin stage by this fine actor.

5. The Production Work for The Deluge (Vortex Repertory Company) Ann Marie Gordon's set and Jason Amato's lighting transformed the Vortex into a raw, wet, and intensely moody world for Kirk Smith's intimate, musical tale.

6. The Tap Duel in Jelly's Last Jam (Zachary Scott Theatre Center) Ronn K. Smith and Bryan Pacheco, playing a mature Jelly Roll Morton and his younger self, respectively, performed a tap-dance duel that turned up the heat.

7. The Shakespeare Bit in The Tempest (State Theater Company) A standout moment in an excellent production: Corey Gagne's drunken Stephano asking to wonderful comic effect, "Do you put tricks upon us?" of a giant likeness of William Shakespeare.

8. Volpone (The Bedlam Faction) This new collective's smart, funny, and self-deprecating work in this Ben Jonson comedy turned the sublime -- and the ridiculous -- into the accessible and immediate -- and ridiculous.

9. The Sword Fight at the Climax of King Lear (The Public Domain) Sometimes those climactic fights in Shakespearean dramas come up a bit, er, short, but this two-style (broadswords and rapiers) effort, choreographed by Travis Dean and Dan Bisbee, and fought by Scott Daigle and Greg Gondek, had brute force and panache. And, yes, I directed the play. But that had no detrimental effect on the fight. Really.

10. The Kafka Museum for The Metamorphosis (The Public Domain/ Refraction Arts Project) Created and curated by Katherine Catmull, Sam Webber, and friends, this multidisciplinary interactive exhibition offered insight into the (strange) life and (trying) times of Franz K., including items such as the Kafka Las Vegas lounge act (with canned laughter) and the sliced-Kafka, tortured artist "submit your most grisly death competition." And, yes, that is the same Public Domain that I used to run -- you want me to feed ya a bug?

Honorable Mention

Karen Kuykendall's Tomato Scene in Big Love (Rude Mechanicals)

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