Still the One 

Despite a reduced schedule, Great Performances remains a leading source of world-class performing arts

Despite a reduced schedule, Great Performances remains a leading source of world-class performing arts

In the face of an ever-shifting cultural landscape and challenging economic realities, Great Performances at Vanderbilt, now in its 34th season, continues to stake its claim as a foremost source of diverse, world-class touring artists.

"We own the title of Nashville's longest-running international performing arts series," says program director Bridgette Kohnhorst. "GPAV is the portal to world-class performing arts.... TPAC serves the Broadway crowd...and the Schermerhorn Center mixes classical with increasingly more guest artists. But for consistent world music and contemporary theater and dance—we're it."

The 2008-09 Great Performances season, which opens Sept. 19 in the newly renovated Langford Auditorium with the Austin-based Latin American orchestra Grupo Fantasma, offers a somewhat reduced schedule but also plenty of bang for the buck.

"Five years ago we presented 14 events," says Kohnhorst. "Budgetary constraints and the economy have had their effect. Last year we presented eight programs, and this year it's seven. The economic model for the performing arts at Vanderbilt is restricting at times, so we have to wear a lot of caps with this year's lineup."

There's a strong ethnic component in the GPAV fare, starting with Hispanic and African flavors in two events apiece. Kohnhorst is quick to point out that Grupo Fantasma and the Blue Note Records 70th Anniversary—On Tour (Feb. 18) are "authentic international forms from this continent. They are American products but international in their own right."

Grupo Fantasma arrives with a new album, Sonidos Gold, as well as exposure on Austin City Limits and NPR. Salsa meets Tower of Power as the 10-piece ensemble mixes funky horns with long Santana-like guitar lines and Latin percussion.

With his unique background as a professional boxer and student of the martial art of aikido, French-Algerian choreographer Heddy Maalem brings his explosively physical dance troupe to Ingram Hall on Oct. 8, with a new take on Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring). Fourteen dancers, representing six different African countries, evoke the ballet's pagan ritual, the chaos and violence set against the backdrop of contemporary Africa. The company, founded in 1990, is on its U.S. premiere tour.

The series' only straight-up theatrical performance will be National Theatre of the United States' Chautauqua in Ingram Hall on Nov. 6. Often honored for its innovative writing, NTUSA revives the 19th century Chautauqua lecture-circuit idea, the ensemble of seven creating their own signature Chautauqua in each community they enter. In this case, Vanderbilt faculty and students will participate in the onstage oratory.

Bravura dance graces the Ingram Hall stage Jan. 29 with Tango Fire, performed by Estampas Portenas, a Buenos Aires company founded in 1996 by Carolina Soler. Featuring 10 dancers, live musicians and a singer, the ensemble offers a series of duets and dances that reference tango as a historical form but also add a contemporary spin that evokes some of Bob Fosse's sensually theatric choreography. "This is a high-ranking, heavily toured company," says Kohnhorst, "and they'll also be providing a lecture/demonstration with Tango Nashville co-founder Diana Holland."

The Blue Note Records gig features an all-star band—including Bill Charlap, Ravi Coltrane and Pat Martino—exploring the classic catalog of great jazz composers like Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. "We've already gotten a lot of calls about this one," Kohnhorst says, "and I'm really grateful that Langford is open for this event. Ingram Hall is great for theater and dance, but we can accommodate a larger crowd in Langford."

On March 20, Jil Aigrot revisits the legend and haunting music of Edith Piaf in a concert celebrating the iconic French songstress known as "the Little Sparrow." Aigrot provided the vocals for six different Piaf songs in the Oscar-winning foreign film La Vie en Rose.

The GPAV series concludes on April 16 with Ronald K. Brown's Evidence dance company. Founded in 1985 and based in Brooklyn, Evidence fuses traditional African dance with contemporary choreography and the spoken word. Directly tied-in to the ensemble's performance of One Shot is an exhibit at Vanderbilt's Sarratt Gallery featuring the photographs of Charles "Teenie" Harris. "Harris is an American photojournalist who should've received more attention," says Kohnhorst. "He photographed the African American middle and upper classes in Pittsburgh. There are 80,000 of his negatives at the Carnegie Museum archive, and there will be a gallery reception the night before the Ronald K. Brown performance, with the exhibit continuing through May 11."

According to Kohnhorst, GPAV has been changing with the student body at Vandy. "We have more students than ever interested in the series," she says. "We have urbane students, more international students, more scholarship students. They're familiar with benchmark performing arts. As we've done since the 1970s—when we were the only game in town—we can help fill a need both outside and inside of campus."

For further information on GPAV-related community events, scheduling and tickets, visit vanderbilt.edu/greatperformances.

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