GALA leaders meeting in Dallas this weekend

Palant hopes annual leadership conference will lead to chance for  Dallas to host 2016 choral festival

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer taffet@dallasvoice.com

Turtle Creek Chorale
REHEARSING | Members of the Turtle Creek Chorale warm up before rehearsal this week to prepare for a performance at Cathedral of Hope as part of the GALA leadership conference. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)

The annual GALA Choruses leadership conference began Thursday, Sept. 2 at the Warwick Melrose Hotel in Dallas and continues through Sunday, Sept. 5.

The annual convention focuses on both the artistic and administrative sides of managing choral groups. Every four years, the full choruses gather for a choral festival.

In 2012, the festival will be held in Denver. Dallas was in the running but lost the summer event to Colorado’s milder climate.

But Jonathan Palant, artistic director of Dallas’ Turtle Creek Chorale, said this weekend’s conference is “a wonderful precursor to a much larger festival that will one day come to this city.”
He said he hopes to bring the quadrennial festival to Dallas in 2016.

“We have the venues,” he said. “We have the hotels. We have the Arts District. We have a strong, wonderful GLBT presence in this city.”

Palant described this weekend’s conference as a series of events focusing on three aspects of running a musical non-profit — artistic, executive and membership.

“As an artistic director, this conference is invaluable,” Palant said.

A member of the chorale will present a session for other choruses called, “Getting the most out of your website,” as part of the membership and volunteer portion of the meeting.

Palant said the Chorale is known nationally for its website that promotes the upcoming season, sells tickets, CDs and other merchandise and features musical previews of the group’s performances.

Among the headliners addressing the conference will be Craig Hella Johnson, founder of the Austin-based Conspirare, a professional chamber choir with members from around the country. Johnson is considered one of the most influential voices in choral conducting in the North America.

On Friday, he will lead a six-hour workshop “focusing on repertoire, musicianship, artistry, the roll of musical leadership,” Johnson said.

Johnson talked about the “professionalization of the choral field” and said that audiences have grown to have the same expectations of vocal groups as they do of orchestras.

While Conspirare is not an LGBT group, Johnson said, “As a gay man, I support them as community-builders.”

While the choruses represented in Dallas this weekend range from small ensembles in smaller cities to large choirs like Dallas’ Chorale, Johnson said that the common role of all choral leaders is to inspire.
“We use music to find our way into the greater realm,” he said. “Music is a language that speaks so deeply.”

Craig Hella Johnson
Craig Hella Johnson

On Sunday morning, Palant said they will host a “gospel brunch” at the Rose Room for conference attendees. Denise Lee, Liz Mikel, Gary Floyd, Cedric Neal and Buddy Shanahan will perform.

A number of singers from GALA choruses from around the country will also be at the Melrose this weekend and will perform Sunday afternoon. They will spend the weekend rehearsing a requiem for the 4 p.m. concert at Cathedral of Hope.

The Chorale, the Women’s Chorus of Dallas and the New Texas Symphony Orchestra will perform the first half of the program. The requiem will conclude the concert. Tickets are $15 and available at the door.

GALA was created in 1981 after the formation of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus in 1978 and subsequent groups in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago and other cities over the next few years. Among that first group of choruses, the Turtle Creek Chorale was established in 1979.

The first national festival took place in 1983 when 12 choruses with a total of 1,200 singers performed at Alice Tully Hall in New York’s Lincoln Center. The annual leadership conference began the following year in Denver.

At the Miami festival in 2008, a new part-time rotating artistic director-in-residence program was launched. Tim Seelig, currently the artistic director of Dallas’ mixed voices choir Resounding Harmony, was elected to serve in that national position for a year.

Veronica Torres of the Dallas Convention and Visitor’s Bureau said that GALA knows Dallas is interested in hosting the 2016 festival. She is waiting for the organization to put out a call for bids before sending them any new information about the city.

She said that if the city were awarded the festival, it would use all of the venues in the Arts District including the new City Performance Hall that has begun construction.

With several years advance notice, Torres said, reserving all of the venues for GALA’s numerous performances would not present a scheduling problem.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 3, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens

Fahari Arts Institute’s Queerly Speaking plans special Pride edition with $500 cash prize

Fahari Arts Institute artistic director Harold Steward sent me this poster for their upcoming Queerly Speaking event. The poster pretty much speaks for itself, but the sweet deal is the $500 cash prize for the spoken word/poetry slam contest. I’m gonna bone up on my Walt Whitman ‘cuz poppa gotta get paid.

Steward did mention that they are gunning for a huge attendance with its timing during Black Pride. The monthly QS events have been successful at gaining an audience in its former Backbeat Cafe home and now in the South Dallas Cultural Arts Center. With national talent coming in and the larger venue, I speculate they are hoping at least to break even. Being a nonprofit, that’s a big deal.

Queerly Speaking

—  Rich Lopez

Ladies first

The Women’s Chorus of Dallas proves just why the city needs them

M.M. Adjarian  | Contributing Writer MMAdjarian@GMail.com

The Women’s Chorus of Dallas
LADIES FOR CHOIR | The Women’s Chorus of Dallas plans to go above and beyond on their next season.

GALA CHORUS CONCERT
With the Turtle Creek Chorale. Cathedral of Hope,
5910 Cedar Springs Road
Sept. 5 at 4 p.m. GalaChoruses.org or TWCD.org.

For more than 20 years, the Women’s Chorus of Dallas thrived, happily performing with  SMU’s Caruth Auditorium as its base of operation. But when the chance came last March to become one of the companies based in the new AT&T Performing Arts Center, the group leapt at the opportunity.

“It was pretty powerful when we first moved in there and had our first rehearsal,” recalls Melinda Imthurn, TWCD’s artistic director. “It felt like a different chorus. The women — I could just see it in their faces and hear it in their voices — felt [like] they were home.”

The chorus had arrived — in more ways than one. The move sent a clear message about TWCD’s importance as a Dallas arts organization, and “[as a specifically] women’s arts organization in the Arts District,” says Imthurn. The group does their part to let Dallas shine as part of this weekend’s Gala Choruses Annual

Leadership Conference and plays host, with the Turtle Creek Chorale, as the resident vocal groups of this area.

Like most music groups of its kind, the chorus —originally founded in 1989 as a lesbian community arts organization — started small. The Women’s Chorus has matured into a group with a diverse membership and a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic face reflective of the city’s denizens. Choral performers come from all walks of life and sexual orientations and bring with them a wide range of musical talents, abilities and skills.

That diversity doesn’t stop at the kinds of women who perform with the chorus. The group incorporates costumes, dancing and the spoken word into its concerts, enhancing the overall vocal vibrancy. As Imthurn explains, these performance extras, combined with concerts that are scripted to more resemble theatrical presentations, “make the music more accessible to people, especially those who might not have experience with choral music.”

And then there’s the superbly eclectic repertoire. Much of what TWCD performs at any given concert is choral music from the venerable European tradition. But there are the musical surprises that include everything from Billboard hits to Broadway show tunes to African folk songs … all presented without missing a stylistic beat. TWCD prides itself on being appropriate to each genre. “[It’s] something the chorus works hard at,” says Imthurn.

In keeping with its mission to promote the “strength, diversity and joy of women,” much of the material that the chorus presents is, one way or another, woman-centered. And it is one of the few organizations that gives voice, both literally and figuratively, to lesbian themes onstage. One of the upcoming projects that Imthurn is especially excited about for the 2010–11 season is a performance at the Texas Discovery Garden for Mother’s Day.

“What we’ll be doing for that particular performance is first [to] sing songs that honor mothers, grandmothers, parental-type figures, mentors, teachers and secondly [to sing songs] about nature,” Imthurn says. TWCD members will then encircle the garden’s butterfly sanctuary and 100 butterflies will be released.

TWCD also maintains a keen sense of social mission. It has actively raised awareness of issues pertaining to AIDS and domestic violence prevention; it also participates in fundraising for such organizations as AIDS LifeWalk, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, and the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition.

According to Imthurn, in everything it does, the chorus is clearly a group that takes the “art” in “heart” and brings it to a new level … which is what drew Imthurn — who started as a performer with TWCD in 2004 — to the group in the first place.

“What made me fall in love with the chorus was the heart of the chorus and the heart you can hear in the music,” she says.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 3, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas

Pas de don’t

Movie about TBT director Sir Ben Stevenson mixes ballet with cliche

STEVE WARREN  | Contributing Writer thinhead@mindspring.com

Mao’s Last Dancer
EN POINTE | Bruce Greenwood, left, plays Ben Stevenson, now the artistic director of the Texas Ballet Theater, who turns a poor Chinese dancer into a sensation in the schmaltzy ‘Mao’s Last Dancer.’

2.5 out of 5 stars
MAO’S LAST DANCER
Bruce Greenwood, Chi Cao, Kyle MacLachlan. Rated PG. 115 mins.
Now playing at the Angelika Film Center Mockingbird Station.

A great story and some amazing dancing are, unfortunately, sacrificed on the altar of cheesy melodrama in Mao’s Last Dancer. It’s hard to believe the great Bruce Beresford (Tender Mercies, Driving Miss Daisy) could have watched this, let alone directed it. And no one who even typed the scripts for Shine and The Notebook could have been responsible for this screenplay, let alone the person who wrote or adapted them (Jan Sardi).

This is the true-ish story of Li Cunxin (Chi Cao), who was invited to spend the summer of 1981 with the Houston Ballet and decided to stay in America. In a throwback to movies of several decades ago, Bruce Greenwood plays the ballet’s artistic director, Ben Stevenson — now the artistic director of the Texas Ballet Theater — as an obviously gay man who lives alone and has absolutely no life outside of his work.

Li, by contrast, is obviously straight, because even as a boy, every time he partners a female on stage there is another female in the audience looking jealous.

Nine years prior Li, one of seven sons of a peasant couple, was plucked from his humble village to be trained at the Beijing Arts Academy, along with 39 other Chinese children. They’re given a standard indoctrination in Communism, including being taught that China has “the highest standard of living in the world,” and capitalist nations the lowest.

When he arrives in oil-rich Texas at the height of the boom, Li is overwhelmed, having never seen such luxury, even in Beijing; he can hardly believe Ben has such a house to himself. But the Chinese consul has counseled him not to trust anyone, “especially women — they’ll lead you astray.”

The early part of the film toggles between Houston and Li’s early years in China, where he is unhappy until an old-school teacher, later prosecuted for his teachings, makes him appreciate dance and his own skills.

When the Houston delegation visits Beijing in 1980, they’re disappointed to see the students, except for Li, are more like athletes than dancers. In Houston Li gets a break but has only three hours to learn the pas de deux from Don Quixote.

Li meets aspiring dancer Elizabeth Mackey (Amanda Schull), who, in this screenplay, is more a device than a person. Afraid of what will happen to his family in China if he defects, Li learns he can stay in the U.S. if he marries a citizen. (Ben pitches a hissy fit.)

Unable to contact his parents, Li worries about them constantly. Years later, Ben arranges for them to surprise him by showing up in the audience for a performance. It must have taken months to arrange and could have taken a lot of stress off Li if he’d known it was in the works, but the surprise makes for a more upbeat (and corny) climax.

That may be the stupidest thing in the movie but there are countless smaller things, like people working in a Washington office in what must be the middle of the night. Even original twists are presented in such a way as to look clichéd.

The ballet sequences, choreographed by Graeme Murphy, are the saving grace of Mao’s Last Dancer — if only we got a two-hour recital instead of the story. Not to be shortchanged is the principal dancer, Chi Cao, who is also a decent actor as far as the script allows. He’d be a natural for a new film biography of Bruce Lee — I’d pay to see Chi replicate Lee’s fight choreography.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 27, 2010

—  Kevin Thomas