Huntsville Arts: Reach for the Stars
By Ann Marie Martin
Caught a good story lately? They’re plentiful as stars in our night sky.
Love, hatred and death strode on stage with Huntsville Ballet Company.
Honor, cowardice and injustice took their bows at Theatre Huntsville.
An Alabama girl turned her love of singing into an international opera career. The Huntsville Symphony Orchestra played its part in her true-life story of talent, ambition and success.
All the dreams, doubts and discoveries that connect us to our neighbors across the street and around the globe? They shine in galleries and studios around town every day.
If you’ve experienced our vibrant arts community, you’re enjoying stories aplenty. If not – if the bright lights of your busy life block those stars – you’re missing one of the best reasons to call Madison County home.
Lowe Mill Arts & Entertainment
You fall in love with a work of art at a gallery. You buy it, take it home, and it becomes part of your life.
But what about the story of that work of art – and the story of the artist who created it? If you found that artwork at Lowe Mill Arts & Entertainment, you probably heard those stories straight from the artist – even saw the work as it was being created.
Metal/clay artist Cindy Miller has her Cindy Miller Design Studio at Lowe Mill. She enjoys working in a place where people can find her and talk to her about her work.
“It’s part of the magic of the creative process every time I pull something out of the kiln,” she said. “It adds value for people to see the process.”
People want to see how it’s done, agrees Wallace Turman of Turman’s Pottery. For his cell phone amplifiers shaped like the space shuttle, he went online to study photos of the actual shuttle and then designed his clay shuttle’s open bay doors to look like the real thing. He also checked with a guy from NASA about the position of the thrusters.
Like several of the Lowe Mill artists, Turman and his wife, Jackie, offer classes at their studio.
Caroline Wang, a watercolor artist with an Asian flair, appreciates the interaction among Lowe Mill’s creative community.
“We can share ideas,” she said. “Art is not right or wrong. Every piece of artwork is a piece of story.”
The Lowe Mill buildings form an anthology themselves. Established in 1900 as a textile mill, Lowe Mill was converted into a cotton warehouse in the late 1930s. It became a shoe factory in 1945 and a heating systems warehouse in 1978. Jim Hudson, founder of Research Genetics and co-founder of HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, bought it in 2001 and set it on the path to becoming the largest privately owned arts facility in the South.
With more than 150 studios filled with painters, jewelry designers, woodworkers, sculptors, photographers, culinary artists and more – plus concerts and other performances and events – Lowe Mill is now a center for the arts in Huntsville.
Huntsville Ballet Company
The audience already knew the story that unfolded on stage at Huntsville Ballet Company’s final performance of the 2018-19 season. It’s been popular for 500 years. The star-crossed lovers die in the end.
But the way Huntsville Ballet and its artistic director, Phillip Otto, revealed the story of Romeo and Juliet brought a fresh poignancy to the familiar tale.
Romeo finds Juliet in the crypt. He doesn’t know she’s in a drugged sleep. He drinks poison to join her in death. Romeo is almost gone when Juliet revives. He sees her returning to life as he is leaving it. He reaches out his arm but cannot touch her. Juliet stretches and rises, unaware of Romeo’s presence as he falls.
Otto’s choreography and the dancers’ performances paint a heart-wrenching scene of the chasm between life and death, the tragedy of lost chances. No words needed.
Talented, trained human bodies moving in graceful, athletic forms tell many stories at Huntsville Ballet Company. It’s been around since the mid-1960s when Community Ballet Association was incorporated to inspire a love of dance in the Tennessee Valley through the ballet company and Huntsville Ballet School.
Otto has been Huntsville Ballet’s artistic director for about 10 years. As he builds on the past to energize the present, his eyes are fixed on the future.
“In the last five years, I started adding on paid professional dancers,” he said. “Four of those dancers are from our school. That’s what my vision is – to create dancers here in the school and then they can go on and be paid by the company to perform.
“I’m trying to align ourselves with the Huntsville Symphony; those people are professionals. Huntsville deserves a professional ballet company. People shouldn’t have to drive to Nashville or Birmingham to see quality performances.”
Otto admits it can be a challenge to grow audiences beyond the ballet faithful. Some people say, “I don’t understand ballet.” Not an obstacle, says Otto.
“In some cases, even I don’t understand what I’m watching. But that’s OK. Going to the ballet sometimes is like going to the art museum and looking at a beautiful painting – only our paintings are set to music. Going to the ballet is almost like the museum coming alive. Appreciate what you see out of that.”
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s novel of racial injustice and loss of innocence, hasn’t been around as long as Shakespeare’s play, but it’s almost as famous. It proved about as popular when Theatre Huntsville produced the stage version in January. The show was practically sold out before it opened. When they added another performance, it sold out, too.
“Theater is, at its heart, storytelling,” said Leslie Gates, Theatre Huntsville’s executive director. “Storytelling is a basic human need. We share stories of the fantastic and the mundane because they are ways we can share the meaning in our lives and explore what it is to be human.
“Theater provides insight into different cultures and ways of life that we may not be able to experience otherwise. The arts hold up a mirror to our society, reflecting how and why we interact. Performances create conversations about current events and teach us about our history.”
A live theater experience cannot be imitated, she says.
“It has such an energy between the actors and the audience, and it’s different every night. I think that’s what makes it such a unique experience. We always say, ‘You never know what’s going to happen. It’s live theater.’”
If you include its artistic roots, Theatre Huntsville has been telling stories since the 1950s. Huntsville Little Theatre was founded as Huntsville’s first theater company and second performing arts group after Huntsville Community Chorus Association, founded in 1946. HLT merged with Twickenham Repertory Company to form Theatre Huntsville in 1997.
While Theatre Huntsville focuses on plays, other organizations fill different niches:
Fantasy Playhouse Children’s Theater & Academy presents stories for younger audiences, featuring young performers.
Independent Musical Productions – now rebranded as IMPHuntsville – made a big splash when it joined the scene in 1993 with its inaugural production of Sweeney Todd.
Broadway Theatre League has brought touring Broadway shows and other professional theatrical productions to Huntsville since 1959.
Huntsville Symphony Orchestra
“We live in one of the most outstanding small cities in the United States,” said Dan Halcomb, Huntsville Symphony Orchestra CEO. “The presence of the orchestra is both a cause and an effect of that.”
HSO’s growth trajectory has largely followed Huntsville’s. When Alvin Dreger, a cellist from Huntsville, founded HSO in 1955, many of the participating musicians were members of the German rocket team led by Wernher von Braun. The orchestra’s second concert in 1956 featured the first of many collaborations with Huntsville Community Chorus.
As HSO expanded its artistic reach over the decades, the orchestra invited world-renowned talent to share its stage. Concertgoers lucky enough to have tickets remember the thrill of hearing our symphony perform with opera legend Beverly Sills, folk legend Judy Collins, British pop-rock band The Moody Blues, and the incomparable violinist Itzhak Perlman.
Today HSO is led by an international classical music star, music director and conductor Gregory Vajda, who was born in Hungary.
HSO’s performing constellation still sparkles with locally grown stars. The orchestra ended its 64th season on May 4 with a concert honoring Alabama’s bicentennial and featuring two former Huntsvillians: soprano Susanna Phillips, recipient of The Metropolitan Opera’s 2010 Beverly Sills Artist Award, and Matthew McDonald, principal bassoon, Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.
Phillips and McDonald come home to Huntsville on a fairly regular basis. A few years back, they founded Twickenham Fest, a summer chamber music series that also includes some of their friends from the wider classical music world.
With classical concerts, a pops series, and educational programs, HSO will take you to artistic heights, but you’ll always have a down-home welcome.
“Absolutely anyone can attend an HSO performance and expect to be awed and moved,” Halcomb said. “The HSO belongs to everyone: skilled musicians, generous patrons, concertgoers, and thousands of children who benefit from outreach programs and music education. A symphony is so many things. It’s when all these different elements come together that we get something truly special – the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra.”
Imagine paintings and sculptures as stories. See the Huntsville Museum of Art as a library of artistic expressions.
HMA’s mix of local, national and international art is reflected in this year’s exhibits:
“Our Shared Heritage: Alabama Artists from the Collection” in the Chan Gallery is part of Alabama’s bicentennial celebration.
The long-running Encounters series, which focuses on local and regional contemporary artists, welcomed Memphis painting prodigy Jared Small to the Grisham Gallery. Small, who says he tries to capture other people’s fading memories in his art, discussed his work during a lecture and reception on Feb. 1.
The 32nd annual exhibition for Youth Art Month presented artwork by local students in kindergarten through grade 12.
Everywhere you look, art’s falling on Huntsville like the famed Leonid meteor shower when stars fell on Alabama. You don’t need a telescope to observe these stars. If you have trouble finding them, check in at Arts Huntsville.
For almost four decades, Arts Huntsville (formerly The Arts Council) has presented Panoply of the Arts, now the Southeast’s premier arts weekend, in Big Spring International Park in the spring. Concerts in the Park happen throughout the summer. In the fall it’s time for the Monte Sano Art Festival.
And if you see giant, illuminated white rabbits in the park – or something else shockingly delightful – don’t fear an invasion from another planet. It’s just the folks from Arts Huntsville showing the community that art is for everybody, at any time, in any space.