CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Mikhail Baryshnikov in a new play, an 18-hour Chinese opera and performance artist DJ Spooky deconstructing "Birth of a Nation." Such an eclectic mix can only mean one thing: Spoleto Festival U.S.A.
Each spring the festival transforms Charleston as stages across the city light up with diverse performances of music, opera, theater and dance.
The 28th season of the world-renowned festival opens Friday with the traditional brass fanfare and a round of speeches from the steps of Charleston City Hall.
After all these years, one might suspect the festival is approaching a comfortable middle age. But organizers say they keep pushing every year to stay fresh.
"Is it ever going to get easy? Absolutely not. It's always going to be a tightrope," says Nigel Redden, Spoleto's general director. "If it gets too easy, there's going to be something wrong."
There's little easy in producing the 1598 opera Chinese "The Peony Pavilion." It will be performed in 55 acts on a stage featuring a pavilion atop an 1,800-gallon tank filled with plants, goldfish and ducks.
The 18-hour event, directed by Chen Shi-Zheng, will be presented in six episodes, with two complete cycles during Spoleto's 17-day run.
"We've never done anything like it before. I wondered about doing it, and I sort of struggled about whether it should be done," Redden says. "But one thing I felt we were one of the very few places in the United States that could think about doing it."
Baryshnikov will appear in the play "The Doctor and the Patient," a new work by director Rezo Gabriadze with a score featuring music ranging from classical to tango to Georgian folk songs. The plot centers on a journey by a doctor and his mentally ill patient.
"It's a rather different kind of play," Redden says, adding that while Baryshnikov won't be dancing, "he is an electric presence on stage, and he is an extraordinary performer."
"To some extent, it sort of fits in with what we do," Redden adds. "We often have artists in sort of unexpected roles."
The unexpected can also be expected during "Rebirth of a Nation," the DJ Spooky piece which uses footage from D.W. Griffith's 1915 silent film, which in part celebrated the Ku Klux Klan.
Spooky, whose real name is Paul Miller, mixes scenes from the film with new video and an audio mix of hip-hop music and original violin compositions to create a new view of the United States and its history.
"He's mining a controversial aspect of the past. It's his contention, and I certainly agree with him, that if you don't learn from the past, you tend to repeat it," Redden says.
"That's part of the importance of doing a festival in Charleston," he adds. "The Civil War did begin here. It's a wonderful place to deal with topics that 140 years later are still very, very sensitive topics."
Other highlights of this year's Spoleto include the Richard Strauss opera "Ariadne auf Naxos," the return of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and performances by Nina Ananiashvili and the Moscow Ballet Theater.
The Moscow Ballet Theater is a troupe featuring some of the leading soloists and dancers from the Bolshoi Ballet.
Along with the Strauss opera, Spoleto will present Vincenzo Bellini's 1830 opera "The Capulets and the Montagues."
The festival also offers "The Fula From America: An African Journey," written and performed by Charleston-born Carlyle Brown.
The jazz lineup includes Brazilian singer Renato Braz and the duo of trombonist Wycliffe Gordon and pianist Eric Reed.
This year's Spoleto budget is about $6.4 million. Last year's festival had ticket sales of $2.5 million.
The curtain falls on the Spoleto Festival on June 13 following a starlight concert and fireworks at nearby Middleton Place Plantation.
On the Net: www.spoletousa.org
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