Penn Live Arts Blog

Recent Highlights: Sep – Dec 2023

Posted December 19, 2023

Each new season begins with an air of excitement over what’s to come on Penn Live Arts stages—the best in dance, jazz, classical and popular music, theatre, and more. This year, the season began with heightened anticipation as we received news that we had been awarded a grant from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage to support the three-year residency of noted hip hop choreographer Rennie Harris. Penn Today spoke with our Executive & Artistic Director, Christopher Gruits, about what this means for PLA, Harris, and audiences. “This new, extended relationship allows us to support the vision of a globally significant Philadelphia artist and partner in the creation of new work, while elevating important and relevant issues for our community.” Make plans now to see Rennie Harris Puremovement in March! September also saw many shows “picked” in season previews of dance, jazz, popular music, new music, and theatre in The New York Times (music, dance), The Philadelphia Inquirer (dance, jazz, popular music, classical music), and WRTI radio.

Toll the Bell, our major thematic focus this season that features artist responses to gun violence, encompasses residencies with the Negro Ensemble Company in October and February and Rennie Harris Puremovement in March. It culminates with a city-wide sound installation on June 7, National Gun Violence Awareness Day. The project was detailed by Gruits on the PLA blog: “How could PLA give voice to those who have been deeply affected and at the same time, how could we uplift organizations and community efforts that are working to improve conditions, prevent violence, and heal neighborhoods? How could we do this through the performing arts?” Learn more about the project in this Knowledge for Good article and WHYY radio story.

Negro Ensemble Company Managing Director Karen Brown was interviewed by Tonya Pendleton about October’s No Policy, No Justice on WURD’s Reality Check. During the week leading up to the performances, playwrights Mona Washington (Elevator Not Necessary) and Cynthia Grace Robinson (Breathe) spent time with Penn students in theatre arts, creative writing, and English classes, captured on our blog.

We welcomed some hometown heroes to the Annenberg Center this fall. West Philly native Justin Faulkner, the longtime drummer in the Branford Marsalis Quartet, brought some Philly sass to the stage in the opening show of the season. In November, Christian McBride showed the audience his Philly pride with his New Jawn quartet and talked all things Eagles with Tonya Pendleton at WURD radio.

Our opening weekend also featured sold-out performances of The Acting Company’s Odyssey, a reimagining of the classic tale based on a translation by Penn Professor of Classical Studies Emily Wilson. Penn Today spoke with Gruits, who says the piece fits into the season’s theme of cross-cultural dialogue and issues while connecting Penn to Philadelphia. “In many ways, it’s the perfect scenario for what Penn Live Arts does.”

The Crossing’s world premiere of David T. Little’s SIN-EATER, co-commissioned by PLA and The Crossing, was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal after garnering a substantial WRTI preview which delved into the origin of the unusual work. In December, we co-presented The Crossing @ Christmas, at the Iron Gate Theatre on Penn’s campus. Conductor Donald Nally shared his thoughts about David Lang’s poor hymnal which was receiving its world premiere.

Three stellar dance companies took the Zellerbach stage, each bringing premieres to PLA audiences. Malpaso Dance Project made its long-anticipated PLA debut, giving the world premiere of Osnel Delgado’s A Dancing Island. Doug Varone and Dancers, last seen at the Annenberg Center in 2016-17, performed the Philadelphia premiere of Somewhere in a “well-wrought” program according to Fjord Review. And Dorrance Dance sparkled onstage in the Philadelphia premiere of its The Nutcracker Suite, the first-ever tour of the work. Behind-the-scenes details of the captivating tap program were shared by The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Broad Street Review and dance critic Melissa Strong said “The Nutcracker Suite delivered. Not only were the music and dancing terrific but this percussive and jazzy take also infuses the holiday classic with new flavors” in her review. We were later thrilled to find that the company went on to perform and spread some holiday cheer at the White House!

This fall, we also welcomed jazz artists including the irrepressible Ulysses Owens, who shared his musical upbringing with The Philadelphia Tribune, and Erena Terakubo, profiled in Jersey Jazz magazine, making her Philadelphia debut. And, we featured some robust collaborations with the Department of Music and Penn Libraries on the early music front. Members of Cappella Pratensis led a discussion and workshop on the use of medieval manuscript sources in modern early music performance. Penn Artist in Residence Meg Bragle helped host a roundtable on the music of Salamone Rossi as a prelude to her performance of Rossi’s The Songs of Solomon. Read more about these programs.

Homecoming Weekend in November was particularly special to PLA this year as two distinguished Penn alumni and outstanding members of our board were honored for their commitment to the University. Richard D. Feintuch, Wharton Class of 1974, received the prestigious Alumni Award of Merit, recognizing his exceptional contributions to the University community and his dedication to the performing arts. And Katherine Stein Sachs, a 1969 graduate, was honored with Penn’s Creative Spirit Award for her lifelong commitment to the arts. Read more about their contributions to the performing arts at Penn.

We brought the fall season to a close with singer Aoife O’Donovan performing Bruce Springsteen’s album Nebraska in its entirety. On this co-presentation with World Cafe Live, Dan DeLuca noted in The Philadelphia Inquirer that despite the cancellation of Springsteen’s planned summer concert, fans would still get to hear some of his music.

As we reflect on the amazing artists of 2023, we also look forward to a jam-packed second half of the season. BODYTRAFFIC kicks us off January 19-20 with a commissioned world premiere by Philadelphia’s own Matthew Neenan. We see another world premiere on January 21 with Daedalus Quartet in Bartok's Monster, a collaboration with Sebastienne Mundheim & Pig Iron School. Families can enjoy Cirque Mechanics on January 28 and save the dates of May 5-7 for the just-announced Children’s Festival. And, JACK Quartet, just featured in The New York Times, starts off the month of February. As we pause to enjoy the holiday season, we are already eager to see you again soon in 2024!

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