Tonight, the Winspear Opera House will host a comprehensive, extraordinary gathering of local talent that will benefit four Dallas AIDS organizations. It is the third iteration of an event that hasn’t been held for almost a decade.
Charles Santos, executive director of the dance host and production company TITAS/DANCE UNBOUND, which brings stunning national and international troupes to the city, has orchestrated A Gathering 2022 as a polyvalent and lush performance. It is similar in structure to a Broadway show in concert. The main cadre of performers remains seated upstage, silhouetted in the penumbras, while numbers unfold downstage.
On a night when the Arts District tends to be dark, myriad groups will have donated time and talent (including the venue itself) for an evening to mark the 41st anniversary of the AIDS epidemic but also act as “a celebration of community,” Santos says.
“We want people to know what we’re here raising money for. A cause that affects us all. It’s a powerful show,” Santos says.
Politics and performance commingle. The playwright Jonathan Norton, artist in residence at the Dallas Theater Center, whose play Penny Candy was published last December by Deep Vellum, has written a four-scene play titled Family that will unspool in parts over the acts. Verdigris Ensemble, the avant-garde choral group, performs a haunting piece as a backdrop to dancers.
Santos asked dance companies such as Bruce Wood Dance, B. Moore Dance, and others to choreograph original work. Drag will figure prominently (courtesy of Rose Room), a performance art form Santos would like to draw more attention to, having staged several drag performances since the pandemic. A rendition of “Lady Marmalade” ends Act One.
Meanwhile, two AIDS quilt panels have been flown in from the National AIDS Memorial Organization—panels with connections to Dallas. In the top left corner of one, the haunting rectangle ends: “I made this panel myself. If you are reading this, I am dead.”
The evening may feel like an impromptu act of kindness, simple and immense, a balm for the tremendous effort of being human and a witness. It is a reminder of loss. Yet full of a lightness, too, that was not as foregrounded in its first two iterations.
This comes in part from the focus on chosen families, communities, and caregivers more than other narratives. It’s about repair and moving forward. And while we are reminded that Black and Brown communities are disproportionately affected and that Dallas ranks high in new HIV infections, new initiatives—like the 16 new apartment units that will be unveiled by one of the organizations—have a moment to be in the spotlight.
“It’s been evolving,” Santos says. “It’s still powerful, but it’s lighter.”
For Santos, who was a dancer in Austin and New York in the 1980s and early 1990s, when the AIDS epidemic was ravaging the arts community, it has always been personal. His first efforts at creating an AIDS-specific tapestry of talent happened in Austin.
“Austin was super rich with dance companies back then. I wanted to do something. Because it was impacting us all. I knew nothing about producing,” he says, “But I wasn’t afraid to ask for help.”
In 2011, Santos held the first A Gathering in Dallas, having dreamed of putting together this kind of event since his days producing the Austin Festival of Dance in the 1990s. What he wanted, he says, was to focus on Dallas-based talent and “write a complete show from top to bottom,” with all new material, a tremendous act of creation and uplifting.
He repeated the event in 2013. The stories told at intimate dinners ahead of time provided the throughlines and organizing principles, unearthing themes and, at times, narratives that informed the show.
“It was very different this time,” he says of the evening that harnessed the perspectives of people from their 20s to their 60s—more “a sharing of attitudes” than of stories. He had to remind himself that “we’re just past the 40-year mark. Everyone under 40 was born into a world with HIV/AIDS. They’ve never known a world without it. They were [also] born into a world with all the medical advances.”
Over the last weeks, groups across Dallas, Fort Worth, and Plano have rehearsed separately. Sunday’s dress rehearsal was the first time the groups met and fit together the puzzle pieces. The dance companies had had a few months to choreograph and rehearse, often in the midst of busy seasons. Norton had only a number of weeks to create his oeuvre.
“Every artist is donating their time. The opera house is being donated. The stage hands. Every penny we raise will go to the organizations,” Santos says. “Even this week, someone had to drop out,” Santos says, and he had to approach a soloist and ask, “‘Can you sing this as well?’”
It’s a beautiful gift of energy and talent, a reminder of the ways the arts can bring us together.
“Monday night, and then it’s gone,” Santos says.