Top five 2018: Transcendent joy through arts experiences

Arts critic Dan Boscaljon offers his choices for the most meaningful performances of 2018.

Humans, although we each can only ever have our own experience, also have the ability to experience moments together.

Moments mediated by the arts touch us differently in different situations: For me, engaging with a novel, such as Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon, is done by withdrawing from others so that I can remain more immersed in the words and world in constructs. I can have a similar experience by looking through an art collection, slowly passing through curated hallways, as I pause when something speaks to me. But even in these moments, the context matters. In such spaces, the collection of artworks brought together in an exhibition present a larger context that helps the art clarify an aspect of its message.

While an individual relationship to the arts can be intellectually fulfilling—appreciating for example, the beauty of a final sentence that cements the plot and thematic structure of a novel—it remains too isolating to allow the full being of a reader to find absolute contentedness.

In selecting the five moments of joy produced by the arts, then, I wish to speak to the capacity of the arts to gather communities of witnesses who join together to participate in the production of an event in a corporate way. I am heavily influenced in this regard by Aquinas, who defined joy as when the longing of the heart comes to rest in its fulfillment, and also by my taste in aesthetic experiences that cause me to attend some events but not others.

Mission Creek: Julien Baker: “Rejoice”

Julien Baker performs on day five of Mission Creek 2018. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Little Village Mission Creek recap

I approach Mission Creek each year with a complex set of anticipations. One of the things I appreciate most about the festival is how the programmers have an uncanny sense of artists who are beginning to reach a new level of artistic genius, a sense that undoubtedly is honed by countless hours of research and experimentation. They balance the festival out with artists who have more widely established reputations and invite the Iowa City community to experience them in small, intimate performances spaces. The two kinds of expectation play against each other and allow me to approach festival week with a sense of wonder: I’m able to engage with a sense of the unknown that helps to enhance the mystery and wonder involved in watching a live version of a favorite performance.

Julien Baker’s albums had been moving through rotations in my home and my personal life, and her set was the one part of the festival that I was determined to attend. I therefore was willing to leave a crowded Gabe’s and excellent set by Built to Spill (whose music, not coincidentally, is one that I find compelling as an attractor of strange joys) to enter into the hushed darkness of the Englert. The performance was riveting, Baker’s powerful voice building to a climax that could trail off in a whispered sound that lost none of its power by integrating quietness. “Rejoice,” however, was a standout.

You could hear the texture of the sound of her strumming the strings on the guitar, the slow build of the song as it testified to the triumph of life over a failed death—the false ending birthed from fear-filled hopelessness—and the pleading, desperate, empowered final words: “I rejoice. I rejoice. I rejoice. I rejoice.” I sat in the back of the Englert, looking at Baker illuminated by a lone spotlight, absolutely vulnerable, inviting everyone to bring their righteous anger, their pain-filled fears, their failed hopes, their infinite longings — and to allow those things to disappear into the darkness of the theater as even her voice fell from its fullness into silence. And all of my personal expectations were shattered in bearing witness, with everyone else in the room, to the catharsis offered in the honesty of a genius.


Riverside Theater: Much Ado About Nothing

Patrick DuLaney and Kristy Hartsgrove Mooers in Riverside’s summer production of ‘Much Ado About Nothing.’ — photo by Rob Merritt

Little Village review

This year, Riverside hosted audience at its Shakespearean stage for theater in the park — for free. I decided to attend on a fine June Sunday, grateful for the absence of insects and the presence of a seat. Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s most delicious comedies, and the company brought it to life with a passionate aplomb. I’d never seen the play live — although I remembered watching the version with Michael Keaton on VHS — and I probably would have skipped it had Riverside not offered the performance as a gift for the community.

When I arrived at the theater, I found some friends sitting in the back row and was welcomed to sit nearby. The cast was delightful, clearly relishing their parts, and I was particularly impressed by the efforts of Kristy Hartsgrove Mooers portraying Beatrice and Patrick Dulaney as Benedick, and by Barrington Vaxter’s Constable Dogberry. The cast grew more competent the more we appreciated it, our energy feeding their confidence, eliciting a lovely performance.

As the most literally and transparently entitled Shakespearean comedies, Much Ado About Nothing stands out as creating unnecessary twists and tensions in moving from point A to point B before allowing these to be resolved. The heart literally comes to rest as Claudio and Hero, Beatrice and Benedick, find joy as their desires are fulfilled, however “unexpectedly,” in each other. The audience — at the very least the night I attended — found the conclusion to be joyful as well, applauding to the strains of an anachronistic “Shut Up and Dance.”

Witching Hour: Jaimie Branch at Gabe’s

Jaimie Branch performs at the 2018 Witching Hour festival. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

This year’s Witching Hour was a top-notch combination of thoughtful explorations of politics and art, with an eye toward inspiring our community toward being more bold in exploring the unknown. The tension that produces the context for restlessness in preparation for joy was present throughout the weekend, from the rich, grotesque humor of Puddles Pity Party through discussions of suicide and consent to Serena Tarr’s riveting discussion of her time with the alt-right.

But the incorporation of stand up humor was, for me, not quite the opportunity for joy despite the laughter that I could hear around me. Instead, the incredibly talented Jaimie Branch and her band, playing Gabe’s as the final act, provided the perfect blend of dissonance that was able to reconcile itself in a triumphant announcement of joy. The jazz ensemble functioned seamlessly to crescendo against the darkness, Branch’s trumpet heralding the possibilities of jubilation.

The triumphant sound surrounded those dancing in the crowd, until, exhausted, the show came to an end. The show alone would have been incredible. The context of Witching Hour and the other voices, authors, performers and speakers who had contributed toward that culmination made it an outstanding moment of the year.


The Green Room: Jesse and Rachel

Rachel Ries and Jesse Elliott presented for the Green Room series on Oct. 8. — Scott Kunkel/

Little Village preview

The 2018 version of the Green Room provided its students with an incredible set of experiences: art and ideas, courage and hope, stories and songs. The combination of speakers and community partners (this year, focused on vulnerable populations in Iowa City), a formula developed and implemented by UI Honors professor David Gould, provided a space in which the city and college communities were invited to experience living well alongside each other.

In a slate of excellent programs (my personal favorites: Casey Gerald and Peter Aguero with Sara Peters), the most joyful night was headlined by Jesse Elliot and Rachel Ries, featuring music from Preucil preschool students and from the Family Folk Machine. The preschool students were more than a cute addition to the night (although they were). They proved instructive in the nature of joy — their unabashed presentation was echoed in the mixed-age choir of FFM voices, who sang one of Ries’ compositions.

The act of merging voices together, unashamed and unafraid, hit a more serious chord than what one finds in the occasional cacophony of a school choir concert.


Ailey II at the Englert

Ailey II, co-presented with Nolte Academy at the Englert Theatre on Nov. 4. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Little Village review

I had never seen a dance troupe perform before Ailey II, mostly because I believed that it was not the kind of thing I would know how to appreciate given my general apathy toward choreographed moments in cheerleading or at pop music concerts. What I discovered was an emergent, universal language that allowed everyone to participate through a series of movements and expressions set against a backdrop of color.

The performance as a whole acted like a prism, almost: Focusing on the dancers’ expressions and movements allowed the audience to reflect, also, on the emotions that they were embodying. At the very least, I was able to have a more profound, deepened appreciation of intimacy, bliss, fear, disgust and love than before. The final sequence, however, was nothing but joy, as their smiling bodies exerted themselves in the precise steps and patterns that assured the audience there is a way of moving forward that allows one to be at home, all the time. To feel the exuberance generated on the stage shared by those around me in the theater is one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever known.

2018 has been a difficult year for many humans, as the anxieties we are called upon to face — ecological destruction, economic tyranny, enhanced misogyny, elemental racism — became overwhelming. While some art forms provide a temporary relief from these things (and I also watched Marvel movies at Marcus this year), what allows a sense of joy is the ability to experience, communally, the way of being together that summons our strengths despite injustice and allows us to take rest, together, through courage rather than cowardice. The context of these sorts of communal experiences are necessary ingredients, I think, to remember why we love and live in a world that seems set to subtract hope and joy from our lives.

The CRANDIC is fortunate to have a wide variety of programs that provide these sorts of moments: Just as a friend challenged me early last year to seek out more joy, setting me on a path that moved from grief to glory, so will I challenge you to do so next year. Find contexts, surrounded by the arts and by others who appreciate them, in which you are allowed to be honest about the perils that confront us and the people who stand, resolute, in a space where we can find ourselves at home.

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