Culturally speaking, your daddy’s Charlotte – the one I inherited when I moved here in the winter of 1980 – was a white, button-down shirt with narrow collars. No uptown arts centers. A symphony and opera company that played and sang mostly standards, with rare exceptions. No fully professional theater company or dance troupe. The cutting edge of culture was as blunt as a butter knife.
Today? Better. Our arts community isn’t yet decked out in a rainbow dashiki, but it’s showing a lot more pizzazz. If you’re going to be a tuned-in member of the region, here are 10 ways to experience new artsy stuff.
1. The Charlotte Symphony has loosened up its black bow tie with mainstage programming that balances Schubert and Tchaikovsky with Gyorgy Ligeti and Mark Lewis, whose percussion concerto gets a world premiere in January. Its altsounds concerts at Knight Theater offer abbreviated programs with lesser-known works at a sharply reduced price, and its Pops concerts yield music from Bond movies to Pink Martini.
2. Charlotte Ballet has just hired a new artistic director, Hope Muir, who’ll take over in July. She’ll bring in European choreographers she met as assistant artistic director of Scottish Ballet, and she’s inheriting a company that already has resident choreographers (Dwight Rhoden and Sasha Janes) who regularly produce premieres. Meanwhile, a $1 million makeover will transform the annual “Nutcracker,” the region’s biggest dance event.
3. Earlier this year, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte did a world premiere of “The Magic Kite” (based on artwork by Rosalia Torres-Weiner) in a season devoted in part to plays with Latino themes. Those included “Mi Casa,” a PlayPlay show for ages birth through 3. The region’s largest professional theater alternates dramas, comedies and musicals for kids, often collaborating with other companies to strengthen its schedule.
4. Opera Carolina created a stir last season by doing the first U.S. professional production of “Aleko,” one of Rachmaninov’s three operas. Though it usually does just three operas a season, it often alternates two favorites with something listeners won’t know as well. Coming up in April: Puccini’s “Girl of the Golden West,” written in the wake of “La Boheme,” “Tosca” and “Madama Butterfly.”
5. Pretty much everything at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte will be new, as it focuses on plays and musicals from the last decade. (ATC scored the Pulitzer-winning “Clybourne Park” before it opened on Broadway.) This season, the newest thing will be its building. ATC will move into an upfitted space in a new neighborhood -- plans were still changing at press time -- to do a season whose dates have yet to be set.
6. Blumenthal Performing Arts now programs six spaces, ranging from roughly 100 seats (Stage Door Theatre, home of the hip Jazz Arts Initiative) to about 2000 (Belk Theater, home of the PNC Broadway Lights series of national touring shows). President Tom Gabbard imports Tony heavyweights there: The 2016-17 slate includes “Fun Home” and “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” the last two Tony-winning musicals before “Hamilton.” (That will arrive in 2017-18.)
7. Alternative cinema lives here, if not on the scale of New York or San Francisco. Regal Cinemas, the area’s largest chain, often shows art-house pictures at three theaters: Manor, Park Terrace and Ballantyne Village. The Charlotte Film Society maintains three series: the tonier Saturday Night Cine Club, grittier Back Alley Film Series and less active Charlotte Film Lab, which imports writer-directors to discuss work. Museums and educational institutions offer film programs, none more impressive than the year-round work of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.
8. Smaller theater companies provide more options than you might expect. Queen City Theatre Company devotes many shows to issues of gender choice or outsider status; On Q Productions mostly does work by black playwrights; CPCC Summer Theatre does big musicals and a comedy or suspense play in summer. Theatre Charlotte, the county’s longest-running theater company, alternates chestnuts (“A Raisin in the Sun”) with edgier fare (“Memphis: The Musical”).
9. Uptown art museums are off my beats but not off my radar. The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art devotes itself to art made in the 100 years, while offering concerts and movies (and a pleasing café). The Mint Museum of Art (which also has a branch off Randolph Road) covers all eras and spectrums and will open a big fall exhibit on “Women of Abstract Expressionism.” The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture lives up to its name with paintings, photos, quilts, ceramics, costumes and more.
10. Fringe culture almost always brings us closest to the future. It will hardly ever be as transgressive or confrontational as in New York, but it gives a lot of pleasure. The multi-disciplinary, avant-garde festival Boom Charlotte sprang up last spring. The modern dance troupe Martha Connerton/Kinetic Works and aerial dancers Caroline Calouche and Co. regularly produce premieres. And fringe theater exists in bars, night clubs, restaurants, even in the streets – but you have to search for it.
P.S. Charlotte Concerts has steadily imported fine musicians since 1930, and the upcoming season includes Emerson String Quartet and pianist Valentina Lisitsa. But even this bunch has news: They’ve added a musical showcase with cash prizes for Char-Meck students in orchestras, bands and choruses.
Lawrence Toppman covers movies, theater, dance, classical music and jazz for the Observer.