Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Difference between theaters is like day and Knight

Charlotte's cultural groups have largely been living under an austerity program ever since the recession hit, but a performance at the Spoleto Festival USA reminded me that we have had one bit of luxury. 

Mere days after its recent visit to Charlotte's Knight Theater, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater arrived in Charleston for Spoleto. It performed in the city's Gaillard Auditorium, a theater that's more than twice the size of the Knight. Out of curiosity about the difference, I went to its last performance, and here's the upshot:  Charlotte audiences, seeing Ailey up close and personal, are getting a treat. 

Gaillard -- pronounced GILL-yerd -- has 2,700 seats, making it larger than Charlotte's Ovens Auditorium. And even that isn't the most cavernous theater on Ailey's agenda: In Atlanta, for instance, Ailey performed last winter in the Fox Theater, which can hold more than 4,000 people. 

In Charleston, I sat well up in Gaillard's balcony. As a guesstimate, I'd say that if you had a seat the same distance from the Knight Theater stage, you'd be in the galleries at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art. Maybe that's an exaggeration, but not my much. 

It's a tribute to the Ailey dancers' projection that much of the open-armed exuberance of Paul Taylor's "Arden Court" carried through the theater's expanses. So did the jubilation of Ailey's "Revelations."  But the nuances and impact of the solos -- such "I Wanna Be Ready" from "Revelations," with the tormented man struggling up from the stage -- just couldn't cover the distance. 

So let's count our blessings. But let's also resist any Charlotte swagger, because Charleston is about to go to work on Gaillard. The theater is about to undergo a radical remodeling that will reduce it to 1,800 seats and replace its blank decor with something much more in keeping with Charleston's atmosphere. (Rendering by David M. Schwarz Architects)

The $142 million project will also upgrade the adjacent exhibition hall and add a city office building. The cost will be split between public money and private donations, and the private fundraising has begun with a challenge grant of $20 million. That's a larger donation that Charlotte has ever had from any source for any arts project. Maybe it's Charleston that should swagger.