It is easy to ignore suffering when it is out of range, but Tuesday night at the Winspear Opera House, the Dallas arts community reminded us of the devastation of AIDS. But the program, titled "A Gathering: The Dallas Arts Community Reflects on 30 Years of AIDS," was no tear-jerker. Rather, it showed resilience and hope, sorrow and joy in equal measures.
It also gave a snapshot view of the variety of talent Dallas offers by bringing together the Dallas Opera, Dallas Theater Center, Turtle Creek Chorale, Bruce Wood Dance Project, Texas Ballet Theater, TITAS, Dallas Black Dance Theatre, SMU Meadows School of the Arts, Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts as well as individual artists.
The show deftly spanned the years when AIDS was just discovered and early death sentences were handed down, to breakthroughs in medical help and the continued fight to limit its effect.
In swift succession, speakers took their turn on either side of the stage to comment on the early discovery of AIDS, its rapid spread, devastation, mixed reactions, denial—and finally, help. To fill in the short history of AIDS, two screens projected the faces of those who had died, the Jerry Falwell speech declaring that AIDS is God's punishment for homosexuals, and lists of the many local supporting organizations.
But wisely, the program focused mostly on music, dance and theater with each offering its own interpretation of what it means to live with AIDS. It opened with five singers backed by the Turtle Creek Chorale singing "Will I" from Rent, plaintively crying, "Lord, will I lose my dignity."
To live with AIDS means many things, however, as shown in the 23 works on the program. In Bruce Wood's Blue, for example, it is comfort. Three men tenderly support each other by crawling, lifting, "walking" over each other's backs and gently lifting a comrade high overhead.
The mood changes in "Who Will Comfort Me" as Patty Breckenridge sings of weariness in a strong, plaintive voice.
Ben Stevenson's pas de deux, Ave Maria, has an angelic feel, partly from the simple white dress worn by Heather Crosby Kotelenets and Alexander Kotelenets, partly from the lucid voice of countertenor John Holiday, and partly from the long, diaphanous sheath of fabric that Ms. Kotelenets swirls so effectively. As her partner lifts and releases her gently onto the ground, she continues to let the fabric billow and flow with serene grace until our last image is of her lover carrying her aloft.
Perhaps the most touching work, however, was Mr. Woods' Chopin Prelude in E Minor, where his gift for simplicity suited Kimi Nikaidoh to a T. Every gesture from arms beating hard, to lunges, turns and walks, seemed like cries of despair, that turn to resignation and finally—when she stops in stillness and stares out to an invisible sky—into peace.
Sorrow has room for hope, and Rachel Dupard's renditions of "We Shall Overcome" and the rousing "Lean on Me" had the audience clapping in unison, and put everyone into a happier mood.
For dry comedy, actors Lee Trull and Steven Walters face off in an excerpt from Paul Rudnick's play Jeffrey as they argue about the conflict of love and death.
Without the Turtle Creek Chorale, an event like this would be missing a vital glimpse of reality. More than 180 members of the Chorale have died over the years from AIDS, and their powerful voices reminded us that life goes on, though memories do not fade.
◊ Margaret Putnam has been writing about dance since 1980, with works published by D Magazine, The Dallas Observer, The Dallas Times Herald, The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times, Playbill, Stagebill, Pointe Magazine and Dance Magazine.
◊ Photos copyright Robert Hart 2011 for TheaterJones