From 1980 to 2000, Charlotte hovered between small-city status and world-class ambitions. Neither adjective has been used lately, and we’ve settled into our destiny: a city with one of almost everything that matters and a busy, if sometimes struggling, fringe culture. That’s especially true in the performing arts.
One group occupies each category at the top of the line. The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra can knock Shostakovich’s Fifth out of the park, even while making you wish a benefactor would endow it with 15 more violins.
N.C. Dance Theatre deftly tiptoes between classical and modern pieces, sometimes combining the two: Directors Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Patricia McBride both danced at New York City Ballet, so George Balanchine gets a look among works mostly by local choreographers.
Opera Carolina tends to do mainstream classics (such as the upcoming “Aida” and “Flying Dutchman”) but is also in the middle of a comprehensive Puccini cycle that will include the master’s rarer efforts.
On the visual side, The Mint Museum of Art (now split into a newer building on Tryon Street and an older one on Randolph Road) fulfills the role of an all-purpose exhibitor, showing everything from ceramics to paintings to costumes; the uptown facility’s emphasis on craft and design has inspired some unusual stuff, including a temporary salt sculpture by Motoi Yamamoto.
The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, virtually next door, shows work from roughly the last century, collected by the family of the Swiss industrialist whose name is on the building.
In fact, Tryon Street remains the indisputable visual center of the city: Across from the Mint you’ll find the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, which devotes exhibits to black art and history. And at the north end of Tryon Street, the McColl Center for Visual Art gives shows and residencies to cutting-edge artists in every field.
Blumenthal Performing Arts reaches the largest number of theatergoers through its Broadway Lights Series, which will bring in “The Book of Mormon” and “Once” this year; BPA books shows and concerts of all kinds in six different venues, from the elegant Belk Theater (2,097 seats) to the cozy Stage Door Theater (140 seats).
The 83-year-old Charlotte Concerts remains the other big general presenter, delivering orchestras, chamber groups, musical soloists and the occasional classical ballet company to Halton Theater.
Four Mecklenburg County drama companies have staked out big chunks of turf in permanent spaces. Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte does off-Broadway style dramas, comedies and musicals (including occasional commissioned plays or joint world premieres) on Stonewall Street.
Children’s Theatre of Charlotte fills two playhouses at ImaginOn all year long, offering work aimed at kids as young as six months old (through its affiliation with Play!Play!) and as advanced as high schoolers, including last season’s hip-hop “Red Badge of Courage”; Carolina Actors Studio Theatre remains the city’s most eclectic group, taking on plays big (“Angels in America”) and small (“The Last Days of Judas Iscariot”) in its NoDa home.
And Theatre Charlotte, the state’s oldest continuously operating community theatre, gives unpaid actors a chance to appear in the familiar (“Gypsy”) and the far-out (“Hair”) on Queens Road. (Davidson Community Players and Matthews Playhouse are the other main non-professional theaters.)
Speaking of far-out, savvy Charlotteans know not to neglect the cultural fringe. Charlotte Film Society hosts two series of movies that wouldn’t play here otherwise through its sophisticated Saturday Night Cine Club and brazen Back Alley Film Series. Art galleries – traditional, multi-ethnic, avant-garde and impossible to describe – have popped up all around the city.
Groups such as Queen City Theatre Company, Citizens of the Universe, PaperHouse, Stephen Seay Productions, Machine Theatre and others play venues from Blumenthal’s Duke Energy (the usual space for alternative companies without a home) to piano bars. The NoDa venue UpStage remains the hottest new theater spot in the county.
Small companies have carved out niches in every performance field. While N.C. Dance Theatre remains the top generalist in town, Martha Connerton’s Kinetic Works Dance Company does unique modern programs, and Caroline Calouche and Co. combines work on the ground with aerial techniques.
Though the symphony dominates its field, all eras get covered, by groups ranging from Carolina Pro Musica (early music specialists) to the Charlotte New Music Festival (works by living composers, some of them premieres). The symphony has its own chorus in Oratorio Singers of Charlotte, but Carolina Voices and other independent organizations weigh in on the classics, jazz and holiday pieces.
Don’t overlook colleges and universities, either. Central Piedmont Community College has run its Summer Theatre program for 40 years (it recently did the local premiere of “Monty Python’s Spamalot”) and sponsors the week-long spring arts festival Sensoria.
Davidson College, Queens University and University of North Carolina-Charlotte produce and import notable work; for example, Actors from the London Stage, which produced a stripped-down “Tempest” at UNCC in 2011, come back for “Othello” this October.
So you’ll have to dig to keep up with the arts around here. The easiest way to do that may be to visit the Arts & Science Council’s Charlotte Culture Guide, which actually ranges well beyond Charlotte. Start at www.charlottecultureguide.com – and happy hunting!
Lawrence writes about the arts for the Observer.
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