VISUAL ART

Muppet Man

Cheryl Henson was 15 years old when she and her 16-year-old sister Lisa spent a summer at a television studio working with professional puppet builders and designers. The spirited crew of singing fruit-stand produce they helped create ended up on TV bopping through a rendition of “Yes, We Have No Bananas.” So goes an upbringing with the man behind The Muppet Show.

Cheryl is now president of the Jim Henson Foundation, which teamed with the Smithsonian Institution and other organizations to create a traveling exhibit about her father—the beloved director, artist, producer, and most celebrated puppeteer of our time.

You can enter Jim Henson’s Fantastic World at the Experience Music Project in May. To walk among the collection’s 138 items is to stroll through a restless, driven mind. Puppets, storyboards, videos, sketches, and designs—some dating back to Henson’s high school days—trace the evolution of Kermit, Big Bird, Elmo, and the others. It’s an expansive tribute to a talent who moved far beyond even the inviting confines of Sesame Street. —Christopher Werner
May 23–August 16, Experience Music Project, 206-770-2702; more info

"People do not necessarily know [Henson] was a filmmaker and animator. Also, collaboration was very important to him. It was important to him not to settle into the Sesame Street look or to settle into the success of the Muppets. People will learn a lot about my dad’s other interests. —Cheryl Henson, Jim Henson Foundation president

“We really wanted people to get inside his creative thinking. If you walk through and you look at his drawings—which are pretty simple—you might say, ‘Oh, well, I could make one of those, I could do that.’ People do get energized watching his work. It’s not just entertainment—it’s also inspiring.” —Karen Falk, Jim Henson Legacy board member and Jim Henson Company archivist

“What you see in the exhibition is everything from the first idea to the first drawing to the finished drawing to the three-dimensional objects to the animated three-dimensional objects to the full-blown film. People can see in one space the entire process.” —Deborah Macanic, Smithsonian’s Traveling Exhibition Service project director and exhibit developer

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BOOKS AND TALKS

Novel Music

Anyone diving into the deep beauty of a Michael Cunningham novel becomes aware of his audacious capacity to involve people of renown in his tales: Virginia Woolf binds the protagonists of his 1999 Pulitzer winner The Hours; Specimen Days features Walt Whitman as a linking device. And the fluid prose that connects these people rushes onward with the heady ease of some swooning sonnet: “Virginia moves through the park without quite walking; she floats through it, a feather of perception, unbodied.” Small surprise that when Cunningham next shows up in Seattle it’ll be in the esteemed company of Schubert, Mozart, and Philip Glass.

Northwest Sinfonietta backs Cunningham as he reads and discusses the above-mentioned books in addition to a yet untitled new work. In between readings, the chamber ensemble will play pieces by the composers who inspired his writing (half the program features a returned compliment: Glass’s music for the film adaptation of The Hours). Score one for Cunningham’s lyricism. —Steve Wiecking
April 24 (Town Hall) and April 25 (University of Puget Sound, Tacoma), 800-291-7593; more info

"All my books are to some extent inspired by music. There have been what I could almost call soundtracks for every novel. It’s never calculated. But sometimes when I get stuck I’ll stop writing and listen to music, and certain composers just feel like what I want to hear while writing a particular novel. The Hours kept suggesting Mozart, Schubert, and Brahms." —Michael Cunningham, author

"My wife and I met Michael in New York a few years ago and got to chitchatting. He wrote the liner notes to the soundtrack of The Hours . And I thought, Holy smoke, he’s just given us the repertoire for an entire concert." —Neil Birnbaum, Northwest Sinfonietta
executive director

“I want the music to be an accent to his writing, rather than the other way around. This is a literary event enhanced by music. We’re always ready to take on different art forms, to mix them—not as gimmicks, but as ways to expand the artistic experience.” —Christophe Chagnard, Northwest Sinfonietta music director

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CONCERTS

List Leader

"Best of” and “Top 10” lists are familiar territory for indie rocker M. Ward. His 2006 release, Post-War, garnered praise on the year-end critic’s charts of Entertainment Weekly, Pitchfork, Spin, and many other magazines. Most recently he and actress Zooey ­Deschanel graced the cover of Paste when their musical pairing, Volume One, was named the finest album of 2008.

For a musician whose career has been dominated by collaborations (in addition to ­Deschanel, he’s either produced, written for, or played with Beth Orton, Jenny Lewis of Rilo ­Kiley, Conor Oberst, My Morning Jacket, and Cat Power), Ward holds his own as a performer and songwriter. His voice, a subtle rasp suggesting he’s smoked a cigarette or two, suits the ­timbre of the Americana folk tunes on his February release, Hold Time. And his songs really move—their slight twang, lingering honky-tonk flair, and charming lyrics grab you and take off to climactic heights.

He’ll claim center stage for a nationwide tour that kicks off this month and ends in March in his Portland hometown after a stop here. He actually lived in Queen Anne for a year, and readily admits he misses our unbeatable scenery. Looks like he belongs on another list, too—the one that recognizes the many great musicians who have spent time in this city of music. —CW
March 6, Showbox at the Market, 206-628-0888; more info

“It is impossible to predict what will happen when you bring someone into the studio whom you’ve never worked with before, and it always takes the song to a place that you never thought it would go. That element of surprise in the studio is something you try to translate to the listener on every song. There were a few years where I devoted too much time to traveling, and I think it knocked the wind out of me, energy-wise. I’ve found a balance now between studio work and playing live so I can keep my energy at a better level.” —M. Ward, singer-songwriter

"Our policy has always been to release albums that we love. It’s pretty easy to hear what we saw in him, [especially] his voice and his mad finger-picking skills. With Hold Time , M. Ward has continued to showcase his brilliant guitar playing and innate sense of melody while defying comparisons and compartmentalizations." —Christina Rentz, Merge Records representative

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CLASSICAL

Modern Myth

Seattle’s early music scene benefitted when scholar and musician Stephen Stubbs came home in 2007 after three decades in Europe. He founded the Seattle Academy of Baroque Opera, then mounted a thundering production of Emilio de’ Cavalieri’s 1600 The Play of the Soul and the Body at St. James Cathedral. This March his Pacific Operaworks chamber company debuts with revered South African artist William Kentridge’s 1998 take on the Monteverdi opera The Return of Ulysses (Il ritorno d’Ulisse).

It’s not your ancestor’s Monteverdi. The dying ­Ulysses lies in a hospital bed in modern Johannesburg remembering his life’s epic adventures. He and the other characters are portrayed by elegant, large-scale puppets manipulated onstage. Nearby, live singers give them voice as video graphics projected on a screen provide further illustration of Ulysses’ world and internal struggle. Eight vocalists include Cyndia Sieden (recently the Queen of the Night in director Julie Taymor’s The Magic Flute at the Metropolitan Opera). Five players from South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company travel from overseas to participate in the show—as does Kentridge himself, who’ll be here to supervise the remount. Ulysses journeys to San Francisco after its West Coast premiere here. And Stubbs? He’s happy to have come back and discovered that “my interests and the possibilities of the city are in sync.” —SW
March 11–28, Moore Theatre, 206-628-0888; more info

"My wife and I went to South Africa on a holiday and asked to meet William Kentridge. I’ve musically directed all three of the Monteverdi operas, but Ulysses is the most difficult—partly because of its epic scale and partly because of the special effects required. I discovered that Kentridge had brought the opera into the new century. It very easily projects the sense of the epic, and you can achieve the stage magic because the puppets can do things that humans can’t." —Stephen Stubbs, Pacific Operaworks artistic and musical director

“The god Giove comes to take a hand in the affairs and fortunes of Ulisse, and as the singer sings the lines ‘I release thunderbolts’ we project an image of what appears to be a lightning strike, but in fact is an angiogram—a lightning strike inside the body.” —William Kentridge, director

“It’s more like a sung play. The dramatic possibilities are much greater than perhaps many modern pieces. I’m anticipating that the expressive demands on the voice will be greater in this role because we won’t be acting the roles ourselves. We can’t use our faces because the audience will be watching the puppets.” —Ross Hauck, “Ulysses” in The Return of Ulysses

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DANCE 

Mozart Moves

Mozart Dances will be the second time within a year that Seattle witnesses the choreographic bliss of the Mark Morris Dance Group. Last spring the euphoric L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato offered the somersaults, human pyramids, and gleeful rump-slapping that Morris heard in Handel. The complexities of Mozart—specifically, his Piano Concertos nos. 11 and 27 and Sonata in D Major for Two Pianos—inspire more of Morris’s transporting moves. Dancers twist, jump sideways, gesture suddenly, or run onstage with arms swaying. “Almost invariably, as you see these, you think: Who in the world but Mark Morris would have thought of fitting that move to this music?” wrote New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay in 2007 (the piece had debuted the previous year as a commission for Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival).

Mounting this Morris production means coordinating 16 dancers, pianists Yoko Nozaki (who played at its premiere) and Garrick Ohlsson, and, once again, the Seattle Symphony (this time under the direction of Stefan Asbury). Morris told us back in May before the curtain went up on L’Allegro why he won’t let his company perform without (expensive) live accompaniment. “I’m old fashioned enough,” he said, “to strive for excellence.” —SW
May 1–9, Paramount Theatre, 206-628-0888; more info

“The dancers are essentially the expressive soloists for this piece, along with the pianists, of course. You could call it a double concerto for piano and dancers.” —Joe Kaufman, Seattle Symphony assistant principal bass

“The piece is extremely exciting and also, in the middle movement, very moving and lyrical. The biggest challenge is getting the tempos of each movement as close as possible to the original intent of Mark Morris—every performance is a little different, but one has to be alert to the capabilities of the dancers.” —Yoko Nozaki, guest pianist

“If it’s canned music you get the same timing every day. It takes away some of the dynamics. The live music makes one more spontaneous. You have to pay attention. What if, for instance, the pianist takes things a little faster, or a little slower? You feel the energy of the music, it’s alive. And it affects the way the audience feels the piece. You can be incredibly moved.” —Joe Bowie, Mark Morris Dance Group soloist

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THEATER

Stage Painting

When the 5th Avenue Theatre receives director Sam Buntrock’s stirring Broadway revival of the Stephen Sondheim musical Sunday in the Park with George, it’s giving Seattle a look at something only a few audiences have ever seen.

Though the show won a Pulitzer after its premiere in 1984, Sunday was no hit and never received a New York remount until the 32-year-old Buntrock, a Brit whose background includes animation, offered it something new: dazzling computer projections that gracefully depict the gradual emergence of a work of art. We witness the sketches, erasures, coloring, and leaps of imagination on painter Georges Seurat’s canvas and inside his mind as he creates the mid-1880s pointillist tour de force A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. In the first act, that process alienates Seurat’s lover, aptly named Dot. Act Two jumps to the 1980s, where another artist feels paralyzed by self-doubt. This George, however, at last hears what Dot—and all of Seurat’s other enduring dots—has to say.

The 5th Avenue will be the only venue to host Buntrock’s production outside of New York and London (where it originated). His staging here features a Seattle cast (New Yorker Hugh Panaro, as both Georges, is the one exception; local favorite Billie Wildrick plays Dot). And there’s something else that neither of the other intimate productions offered: a full orchestra playing the original orchestrations. This is a choice opportunity to experience, as the show’s glorious penultimate song suggests, “the care and the feeling and the life” of not just one masterpiece, but two. —SW
April 21–May 10, 5th Avenue Theatre, 206-625-1900; more info

“You take for granted the way Sondheim writes melody, but you’ve got to make your emotional turns every word and a half. And that kind of challenge is a dream. I thought I was going to have to give that up when I moved here from New York—but the best part of New York followed me back.” —Billie Wildrick, “Dot” in Sunday in the Park with George

“The New York producers of the show saw that we had it scheduled and called us to say, ‘Is there any way we can work together on this?’ We have to bring over the London team that created the projections. There’s a tremendous amount of equipment to rent. And our team has been working on this for months. It takes us into technical realms we’ve only barely dipped our toes into before.” —David Armstrong, 5th Avenue Theatre producing artistic director

“I feel what we’re doing serves the piece. It’s not an add-on. I have a foot in both [animation and live performance], which gives me an advantage in integrating the animation.” —Sam Buntrock, Sunday in the Park with George director, to The New York Times

This article appeared in the February 2009 issue of Seattle Met Magazine.