When you grow up in a small town in Indiana (for me, it was Martinsville), you're more likely to spend your formative Friday nights in a high school gym watching basketball rather than in a concert hall or art gallery. Live theatre generally consisted of the senior class play and dance was something you did at parties, not something you watched.
And no art I ever saw could get a whole gym full of people up on their feet and screaming the way a good basketball game could.
Nonetheless, while I never heard anybody use the phrase "art appreciation," somewhere along the way, someone managed to expose me to "culture." Maybe it was listening to Dad's old records, maybe it was those occasional school field trips to Indianapolis to hear a symphony, or maybe it was just stuff I picked up from the movies, but somehow I developed an interest in the arts.
Then I went to IU in Bloomington and found myself surrounded by concerts, galleries, plays and more. So I went to the art museum, the theater and so forth. And I quickly discovered that while I really liked some of the stuff I was seeing and hearing, I also thought a lot of it was pretty overwrought and pretentious. I discovered that some people seemed to be making their art simply to offend people they didn't like, or to impress people who impressed them. Too many of the "artsy" types acted like art was sort of an inside joke, and if you didn't get it, well, you didn't deserve to.
So, while I graduated from IU with a degree in theatre, I also graduated with a bit of an attitude about the arts--an attitude that is exacerbated by the fact that, unlike my college years (when I could go find time to enjoy an arts event just about any time), these days I have a hard time squeezing in arts experiences.
It's not that I no longer value art. On the contrary: Because my schedule allows me to get to fewer arts events, I put greater value on the art I do consume. To put it bluntly, if I invest a rare free evening in art, I want a rare experience in exchange. Yes, I see the problem with that statement. Art is inexact, changeable and subjective. So, this "It better be great" attitude is neither fair nor realistic. Then again, I think that is how most people approach an arts outing. They don't get to enjoy real art often, so they want to make sure it's a good experience. No, I don't expect every experience to be the kind of thing that would get a whole gym full of people on their feet and screaming, but I do want an experience that is, in some sense, exhilarating.
Which begs the question: When you only get to experience art every once in a while, how do you choose what to see?
To try to answer that question, I looked at Indianapolis' spring 2013 arts calendar. The good news is, I found plenty of options. The bad news is, that means I have a lot eliminate. First let's consider what gets eliminated right away. Opera? Sorry - I know Indianapolis Opera does good work, but opera just isn't my thing. Ballet? It's been too spotty and unreliable around here lately. Big touring shows? I'm usually turned off by the cost, and, besides, I prefer local stuff. Jazz, cabaret, live music ... I enjoy it all, but I don't think of it as "arts night" fodder. Film? If something sounds good, I usually wait until I can watch it at home.
Now let's filter the rest of it through personal preferences and experiences. Since I studied drama in college, I do enjoy attending local theaters. While I've occasionally found myself bored to tears at classical music concerts, I've also been moved to tears by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. I often find visual art to be pretentious, but a great piece will hold me spellbound. I've never been a big fan of dance, but I have seen some amazing performances from Dance Kaleidoscope. Overall, I dislike art that is edgy for the sake of being edgy, takes itself too seriously or comes across as some kind of privileged information. Any arts group that acts like you should like it because, well, because you should won't get the price of a ticket out of me.
So, what is on my short list for spring 2013?
First, always impressed by the creative athleticism displayed by director David Hochoy's dancers, I look at what Dance Kaleidoscope has coming up. The March 12-24 "Piaf Plus" looks interesting with its tribute to French cabaret music, but the May 16-19 "Barefoot Renegades" sounds even more attractive. Billed as a wide-ranging production with "human qualities ranging from serenity, to searching for meaning, to turmoil," the show will feature a world premiere of Hochoy's choreography of an Igor Stravinsky work.
Still, I lean toward theatre when I'm looking for a night out, so I check out what some of the local theatre companies have lined up. The buzz around Indiana Repertory Theatre's "A Little Night Music" is hard to resist. After all, the Jan. 23-Feb. 17 production features Grammy Award-winner Sylvia McNair, and it's one of Stephen Sondheim's most celebrated shows. And, since musicals aren't their stock in trade, I'm intrigued by what the IRT folks will do with it.
Since I sometimes like my theatre with an edge, I consider the Phoenix Theatre's Jan. 24-Feb. 24 production of "Next to Normal," a Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning look at a bipolar woman and her family. Then again, I'm always drawn toward locally connected shows, so I ponder No Exit's "Our Experiences During the First Days of Alligators," which was written by NUVO columnist David Hoppe, or "Pigeons," written by local novelist and Butler professor Dan Barden.
Musically, I always keep an eye on the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's schedule for concerts that offer unusual experiences or the opportunity to hear great works live. ISO's Jan. 11 "Hairspray in Concert," a world premiere with film director John Waters narrating and former Monkee Mickey Dolenz singing, promises a unique evening. On the other end of the spectrum, the ISO is performing Beethoven's Fifth Symphony March 22-23, marking the first time new Music Director Krzysztof Urbanski has directed that piece here. Even if you don't know a bassoon from a buffoon, you've no doubt heard the first four notes of the Fifth (often described as "short-short-short-loooong"), which have been used in countless cartoons, commercials, TV shows and other outlets of pop culture. But the thing is, as famous as those four notes are, they just scratch the surface of what many people consider to be one of the greatest orchestral pieces ever written. The same evening will feature a rising-star cellist, Sol Gabetta, playing a Schumann work that the ISO hasn't performed since 2006.
On the visual arts front, I'm intrigued by the Indianapolis Museum of Art retrospective of Robert Indiana's graphic prints. Opening in May, this exhibition featuring the work of the artist who created the IMA's iconic "LOVE" sculpture has a few things going for it: it's being put together by IMA curator Marty Krause, it looks at the internationally acclaimed design of an artist born in Indiana, and it would give me the opportunity to wander around the IMA, always a welcome excursion.
That's my short list. To some, it might seem heavy on the established, traditional arts groups and short on the more contemporary and cutting-edge stuff, and I really can't disagree. But, then again, if you don't have a lot of opportunities to consume art, you tend to avoid the riskier options. I've seen great stuff from the smaller, edgier groups, but I've also had some pretty awful experiences in those places.
So, if I were to choose one experience - hoping for an experience that justifies the investment of a rare night out - what it would it be?
I'm going with ISO, for a few reasons. Obviously, it's a rare experience to hear one of the world's most memorable pieces of music performed live by one of the world's top symphony orchestras. Also, I've not yet seen Krzysztof Urbanski conduct, and this piece should give him a chance to really strut his stuff. The fact that there's a cello piece on the program (there's something about the deep, sonorous tones of the cello that has always fascinated me) simply adds to the appeal.
So, there you have it. I've put all my eggs in the ISO's basket. In a few months, after I attend the concert, I'll report back and let you know how my choice panned out.