I’ve lived here in the Tidewater two years now. During that time, I made the one thousand decisions that are involved in building a house, moved twice, volunteered regularly at my grandkid’s school, worked at my freelance gigs, kept walking, practicing yoga and Pilates and tried to find some friends. That left lots of time to get to know my new home – the waterways, trails, farmers markets, historical sites, museums and of course, the restaurants.
2015 is the first year that I’ve dipped my big toe into that fantastic pool of culture known as the Virginia Arts Festival. There’s nothing like it where I’m from. I’m sure there must be other arts festivals out there, but is there one that brings more bang for your buck? Is there a festival like this that spans an entire region, with cities, corporations, and individuals working together to bring world-class performing arts to anyone who is interested?
The Virginia Arts Festival, also known as VAF, has been entertaining and educating for 19 years. According to Robert W. Cross, Executive Director, over 35,000 area students had the opportunity to attend matinees, workshops, and even one to one training with this year’s performers. The 2015 season included 44 ticketed performances and 22 free, outdoor events. The venues are spread around the region and range in size and scope from the spectacular Virginia International Tattoo at the Scope Arena to the intimate performance at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Portsmouth by Cantus, nine men who sang acapella and with no mics.
This year I was lucky enough to attend the Virginia International Tattoo and then two very different performances in two very different places. I experienced Pilobolus (right) on a stormy Tuesday night at the Sandler Center, built in 2007, and then Cantus on the next night, a mild and beautiful Wednesday, at St. John’s Episcopal Church, built in 1897 in Olde Towne Portsmouth. These two performances couldn’t have been more different, but if you look closely at the Venn diagram, some things were the same. Seeing them so closely together, back to back, made them both even better and was an experience I won’t forget.
Pilobolus is an American modern dance company, named after a phototropic, self-propelling fungus. The dancers are amorphous, undulating, sensual but often sexless. The company specializes in highly athletic contortions of their bodies, both alone and together. It is true performance art. As the six bodies moved around the stage with the music, I thought of Greco Roman figures, a Hieronymus Bosch painting, a swarm of giant spiders, an industrial robot, and more. It all happened before my eyes, but it often happened so quickly and fluidly, that I wasn’t sure how they got their bodies to do what they did. At times it was unbelievable. No one could move or shift their body into those shapes, but I was sitting in row G and the dancers were right in front of me.
At times I forgot that they were real people on the stage. They never spoke and the music was often unconventional. Even though they wore skintight costumes, “kind of skimpy outfits” as the man sitting next to me remarked, it felt like they were abstract sculpture. I was surprised when the bodies would move and transform into another shape. Pilobolus was a celebration of the beauty and the mystery of the human body.
The very next night I was in Olde Towne Portsmouth, having dinner at Home Grown, where the chef comes to the table to give you some of his favorite options from the Portsmouth Farmers Market. We walked a couple blocks down to the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church to join a much smaller audience in a more intimate venue to hear Cantus perform. St. John’s is a hundred plus years older than the Sandler Center, but the acoustics and sight lines in both are perfect.
Cantus (below) is a group of nine handsome men, dressed in business suits with pocket squares (no skimpy outfits here), who stand in a straight line, according to their voices, and sing in perfect harmony, no accompaniment. There was one microphone down in front, that they would take turns using to introduce their sets and explain the songs.
Pilobolus is a sensory experience. Cantus sings beautiful music, but they also strive to educate their audience. As the gentlemen introduce each set of songs, they explain what type of songs they will be – “songs to ease our troubled hearts,” “songs to give courage and support,” “songs that belong to a culture,” “songs to give one voice to many,” and “songs for the sheer joy of singing.”
The nine men stood in front of the alter, singing music from all around the world, in many different languages and from many different times. There was beautiful old stained glass behind them and around the candlelit nave. There was a magical feeling in the air. A softer kind of magical feeling than Pilobolus, but still magical.
Both Pilobolus and Cantus were cultural experiences. Very different from one another, but both art that made me wonder, see life in a different way, made me shocked, happy, peaceful, spiritual and made me want to see more.
All this thanks to the Virginia Arts Festival, “one of the major arts events on the East Coast.” We are so lucky to live in a place that offers such a diverse line-up of world-class performances. I will definitely be dipping my toe into the cultural pool a little farther next year.
For more information about the closing event of the VAF, click here. Star Trek: The Ultimate Voyage, a collaborative effort of the VAF and Seven Venues, is coming in February, 2016. For more on that, click here.