The Road to Experimentation Goes Through Columbus

The most exciting news release regarding the upcoming fall arts season arrives in early August like a punch in the gut, and the impact is a smile of anticipation followed by a long sigh of disconten

The most exciting news release regarding the upcoming fall arts season arrives in early August like a punch in the gut, and the impact is a smile of anticipation followed by a long sigh of discontent.

The 2003-04 program calendar from Columbus for the Wexner Center for the Arts performing arts series promotes 21 acts representing cutting-edge world artists in theater, music and dance. No fewer than 19 acts on the Wexner calendar have yet to appear in Cincinnati, and it's safe to say they won't be coming anytime soon.

Cincinnati might promote itself as the region's arts capital thanks to its much praised symphony orchestra and the international attention lavished on the sleek new Contemporary Art Center, but it's Columbus that boasts a year-round program dedicated to world-class avant-garde performances. For those of us who live here and aspire to expand our horizons with alternative performance art, we're relegated to long drives north on I-71.

Some of the upcoming Wexner performances are world premieres, and the Wexner commissions many of the acts. Grouped together, they represent adult arts programming at its finest.

There's diversity among the selections — Jazz artists Wynton Marsalis, Charles Lloyd and Chris Potter share the stage with Argentinean musician Dino Saluzzi and DJ artist Kid Koala. England's Improbable Theatre presents the U.S. premiere of its latest production, The Hanging Man. Mexican theater director Claudio Valdés and his company, Teatro de Cierto Habitantes, present El Automóvil Gris, a stage play based on a 1919 silent Mexican film.

British dancer/choreographer Akram Khan unveils a new full-length work, Kaash. The Czech dance ensemble Déjà Donné makes a rare Midwestern appearance. Avant-Rock bands and Electronica music artists will be booked later in the year.

The result is a program that crosses boundaries of age, races and class. Art is a unifier on the Wexner performance stage. While suburban housewives are welcome — I swear I've even seen some in attendance at past Wexner events — they're not the prime factor in determining the series.

Wexner Director of Performing Arts Charles Helm intentionally pushes the performance envelope. They strive to make Columbus more urbane, cultured and world-class through a performance calendar featuring international artists who would be welcome at any arts center in any metropolitan city.

Well, except for not-quite-metropolitan Cincinnati, which boasts the massive Aronoff Center for the Arts managed by uninspired administrators at the Cincinnati Arts Association (CAA) and by-the-book board members unwilling to schedule acts that don't adhere to a strict bottom-line mandate.

Columbus hosts Improbable Theatre because Wexner administrators believe Columbus residents benefit from the opportunity to see their chancy work. CAA honchos build their bragging rights atop massive Broadway Series subscriptions and consistent crowds for road show stops of The Producers and Lion King. Money, and little else, makes the Aronoff Center's world go round.

The arrival of Cincinnati's fall arts season means the I-71 tradition continues, and it's unclear what might happen to reduce the need to drive to Columbus on a regular basis.

There is new City Hall support for reviving plans to renovate Over-the-Rhine's Emery Theatre, but nothing appears to be organized on the Emery side of the equation. A few blocks away, Memorial Hall remains underused and in need of physical improvements. The two smaller venues at the Aronoff Center — Fifth Third Bank Theater and Jarson-Kaplan Theater — frequently sit empty, waiting for organizations with the sufficient capital to open their doors on a regular basis.

Grass-roots programs continue throughout neighborhood venues like SSNOVA and the College Hill Town Hall — but, like all grass-roots efforts, they're in need of additional funding and like-minded supporters.

Until then, the drives to Columbus continue.

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