KCP arts blog 1
Behind the Scenes and Stuck in the Woods
By Jay Craven, KCP artistic director
I’m not sure that the world needs another blog and I’m not even totally sure what a blog is supposed to do, but I am going to try to write once a week, going behind the scenes of what we do at Kingdom County Productions. If you’d like to receive the blogs, click here and we’ll send them out, probably on Thursdays. Feel free to let me know what you think—we’ll have a place for comments or write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As I write this, I’m stranded in the deep woods, aboard an AMTRAK train headed back from New York City to Vermont. The train just hit a huge obstruction on the tracks that nearly derailed us and immobilized the locomotive amidst the pungent smell of burning oil and steel. We were going 79mph and it felt pretty dicey for about two minutes. The obstruction was ice. Power is off, there’s no heat, and darkness is setting in. It’s 5:02 according to my computer which has about 40 minutes of battery power left. A couple of conductors are crawling around underneath the train—I don’t think there’s much they can do. We’re not near any roads. And we’re in the two-car train we boarded after we had to bail out of a bigger train in Springfield, due to a marooned AMTRAK unit blocking track up in Vermont.
January is a slowish month in Vermont but it’s the time that performing arts producers convene in New York to check out music, theater, and dance showcases and wrangle deals to bring artists to our venues. January is an OK time in New York, though it’s usually bone-chilling cold. I weathered 17-degree days, walking wind-buffeted concrete in Manhattan that felt far worse than 20 below zero in the Northeast Kingdom. But January is the rare time when I could find a two-room fourth-floor walk-up here for $100 a night. Internet service was bad and traffic was loud, but there was heat.
Our friends at the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA) help rural arts presenters like KCP pay costs to attend these January NYC showcases. Their $700 grant made it possible for me to ride the train and rent the room. NEFA sometimes helps us pay artists fees, too, especially in modern dance and theater. NEFA supported our productions of Momix, Ballet Jazz of Montreal, and Ethan Lipton and His Orchestra, a satirical cabaret concert that we’ll stage on Saturday, May 2nd at Lyndon State College.
I originally saw Ethan’s terrific show, No Place to Go, at New York’s Public Theater, during a January 2013 showcase. In No Place to Go, he spins an ironic riff on his life as a struggling playwright whose day job as a permanent part-time temp worker gets outsourced to Mars. Nearly everything is true, except the Mars part and a funny bit about sitting in a waiting room about to be interviewed for a playwriting grant. I’ll let you guess what happens. Lipton’s cool rhythmic talking-blues is backed-up by three first-class jazz players who hit all the right notes. Part love letter to his co-workers, part query to the universe, part protest to company and country, No Place to Go delivers an irreverent and personal musical ode to the unemployed.
I went to New York, determined to find the right dance company for next year. We’ll take a break from the story ballets we’ve recently staged, performed by Russian troupes. The audience response has been terrific but we’ve run their cycle, at least for now, having staged Swan Lake, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and, in April, Giselle. I like ballet for its elegant virtuosic dancing. I tend to favor modern dance that displays similar rigor and grace while exploring inventive movement.
It can be harder to attract an audience for modern work—but its pleasures are many. Back when I programmed for Catamount Arts, during the 1980’s, we brought modern companies including Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, Alwin Nikolais, Murray Louis, Feld Ballet, Ohio Ballet, Washington Ballet, The American Indian Dance Theater, Ballet Hispanico, Elisa Monte, Momix, Pilobolus, and the New Amsterdam Ballet, featuring American Ballet Theater stars Kevin MacKenzie and Martine van Hamel.
I saw the fabulous Bill T. Jones company in New York and came away wanting to bring them to the Northeast Kingdom. Bill T. Jones is a leading figure in dance, having won the MacArthur “genius” award, Kennedy Center honors, and the National Medal of the Arts from President Obama. His multicultural dancers are among the best and Jones’ exquisite choreography is fluid, richly evocative, and articulate in its evocation of images from nature, the street, social behavior, and various states of emotion and ideas. I met with the company’s management and settled on a fee that was steep but maybe manageable—if I could find two other New England presenters to join a NEFA “Expeditions” grant application. Portland, Maine and The Flynn Theater seemed ready to go. The cost: about $30,000, including marketing and technical support. Grant support could contribute $10k. Local sponsors another $10k. This would be a special event.
This morning, I reviewed the Bill T. Jones tech rider with our production manager and it looks like we won’t be able to stage the troupe. They wants 20 moveable line sets above the stage, for hanging lights and scenery. We have just two and they’re fixed. They insist, as all companies do, on a sprung wood floor. Ours is rigid wood laid on concrete. This can be hard on dancers even when we add a slightly cushioned linoleum dance floor. We have to negotiate this issue with every company we present. They wince, then often agree to perform. I remember Merce Cunningham walking onto our cherished stage at Lyndon Institute—the only one in the region large enough for dance. Merce looked and me and stomped his foot three times onto the hard floor. He didn’t have to say a word. But his troupe gave a memorable performance. It looks like I’ll have to start from scratch to find another dance company. I hope we can someday find the means to help renovate our theaters—or maybe even build a new one that’s just right for what we do.
Bill T. Jones won a Tony Award for his choreography of the hit Broadway production of Fela! based on the life of legendary Afrobeat originator, Fela Kuti. The hi-octane 12-member Afrobeat orchestra, Antibalas, arranged and performed the soaring music for Fela! and they’ll perform here on Tuesday, February 10th at Fuller Hall. St. Johnsbury Academy.
Antibalas has collaborated with artists including The Roots, Arcade Fire, St. Vincent, and Femi and Sean Kuti and they’ve performed on the Jimmy Fallon Show and at venues worldwide. They’ll appear, performing separately and together on stage, with Zap Mama, the acclaimed Belgian/Congolese hip-hop, soul, and AfroPop group that has worked with Erykah Badu, Alanis Morrisette, Common, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and others. Our 31-page tech rider and 35-person crew and artists will also present challenges—but we’re jazzed to make this happen.
This Zap Mama/Antibalas concert falls on a week-night, I know, but imagine how much shorter that work week will be, after a Tuesday night of full-tilt funk, pop, soul, hip-hop, and AfroCuban drumming at Fuller Hall. Tickets start at $18 and they’re available at the Catamount Regional Box Office or by calling (toll-free) 888-757-5559. Online sales are available at KingdomCounty.org.
We escaped our Amtrak ordeal, by the way. After two hours and a visit by a rescue group of tech wizards, our conductors huddled and determined that the damage was too great—so they backed us up along the tracks until we met a road. There, two busses waited to take us north. Bess was placed in the bus headed to White River. I had to stop in Brattleboro, to start my new semester at Marlboro College. My driver claimed he’d never driven in New England and he skidded the bus into a couple of slippery turns before he found his way on to I-91. But we both made it back to the Kingdom, eventually.
The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
Playing our films, Northern Borders and