Reporter’s Notebook The Impresarios of Avant Garde

How Dallas became a hotbed of the best new experimental art.

It’s midnight on a Thursday in April, and Laurie Anderson, the performance-art diva, has just unveiled the world premiere of her new work. Songs and Stories from Moby Dick, at McFarlin Auditorium on the SMU campus. Now she faces another, equally challenging, audience-the reception at Howard Rachofsky’s gallery/home on Preston Road.

Anderson is visibly exhausted, but she is perfectly poised and aware of the stir she is causing with her companion Lou Reed, the black-clad grand master of New York’s musical underground. Anderson is surrounded by admirers, yet few of them will actually talk to her. The house is filled with people who know that tonight this is the place to be. There is a subtle self-consciousness about the crowd thai could be construed as a collective case of inferiority complex.

Except for a bold few, everyone at the reception seems tongue-tied, Dallas isn’t often shy. but tonight everyone seems aware that this is nor New York, that there’s a big disparity in the cool factor between Reed and Anderson and everyone else.

An occasional hipster shuffles up to the pair and murmurs something (“Cool. man. Loved the show.”) But one “Dallas lady” of indeterminate age and determined blondness, perfectly coifed, wearing an elegant hot pink suit and a gracious smile, Nita Spritzer, has no problem talking with the legendary Lou Reed. Not an apparently likely Dallas fete-set pairing, the two are absorbed in art-speak, pausing to admire Anderson’s multimedia sculpture in the Rachofsky collection.

There is one man in the crowd who appears nonplused by the buzz. He sharks the perimeter of the crowd, absorbing every detail and nuance, looking agitated and ecstatic all at once. His face is long, striking in an almost Howdy Doody way, and as he flits nervously around Reed, a subdued exuberance cloaks his typically dramatic manner. Meet Tom Adams, founder of the nonprofit Texas International Theatrical Arts Society (aka TITAS).

Architect of this unlikely scenario, Adams is the man who convinced Anderson, the queen of alternative performance art, to debut her piece in Dallas, a city where the symphony has trouble drawing a crowd for moderns like Alfred Schnittke.

Songs and Stories from Moby Dick was not staged again until weeks later in Philadelphia, and then it went truly international midsummer when it appeared at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston. In October Moby Dick opened the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival-the most important cuttingedge arts festival in the country. There is nothing extraordinary about Adams’ rabbit-from-the-hat this evening, Under the gabby impresario’s directorship, TITAS has spent the last 17 years staging such unlikely events. In feet, this is the third time Laurie Anderson has performed for the cutting-edge presenters. Her premiere is one of many “firsts” brought to town by TITAS, which has also ushered in ballet giants such as Mikhail Baryshnikov, Peter Martins, Rasta Thomas, Carlos Acosta, and Maya Plisetskaya, and has introduced acts as varied and esoteric as the Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices, Paul Dresner Ensemble, ACREQ, and David Parsons Dance Company.

With Adams at the helm, TITAS has often been ahead of the mass-market curve, showcasing groups like the KODO Drummers and STOMP before they priced themselves out of Adams’ budget (an irony that haunts many small, experimental outfits), while now-household names such as Philip Glass and Bill T. Jones have continued to grace the company’s proverbial marquee.

And TITAS’ is a proverbial marquee. The company has no performance home, no real estate to lend it social status-which makes the nonprofit something of an anomaly in a city where buildings often define their inhabitants, not to mention their collective status. All TITAS events, except the annual “Command Performance” ballet galas at Fair Park Music Hall each spring, are staged at McFarlin Auditorium. And that fact, along with its lack of an auxiliary arm such as the museum’s “Associates” or the symphony’s “League,” helps explain why, after all these years, TITAS remains a minor player in the city’s high-stakes arts scene. No building, no “Dallas” in its name? No high-dollar. Big D cache, then.

Its very survival makes TITAS a bizarre entity. Its association with Dallas seems as unlikely as that of pink-suited Spitzer and bohemian veteran Reed at Rachofsky’s soiree. Yet, TITAS has managed to hold its own for almost two decades-an island of avante garde in a city of fabled conservatism. As Adams is fond of saying, “Sometimes you will be entertained and other times you will be disappointed, but you will never be bored.”

You, the audience, may be seriously perplexed, as well. TITAS doesn’t deliver what the audience expects. Take the Whirl-ing Dervishes’ performances in 1998, when ticket holders obviously expected the Middle Eastern troupe to segue from their spinning meditation into something more…entertaining.

“The Whirling Dervishes was somewhat of a curve to the audience,” admits Adams, who cut his teeth at the Dallas Theater Center and the Fort Worth Ballet before starting TITAS in 1983 with the late Gene Leggett and a$10,000 loan, “The shows sold out, but I think the anticipation was that the turning would be faster, that there would be a ’beginning, middle, and end.’ But this was a religious ceremony, and the spinning did not get progressively faster or more kinetic, and I think we in the West expected it to vary more…. There were no complaints later, but that is a tremendous credit to our subscription audience,” he concludes, adding that he was particularly pleased when members of the Turkish community came up after the show to thank him.

TITAS has always taken risks with its programming. It booked ACREQ, the Canadian-based musical group whose work is inspired by the songs of Frank Zappa. The deceased musician’s sardonic, often absurdist commentary is loaded with expletives and intellectualized references to sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll-early shock music thai references everything strange and real in contemporary American society. As a precaution Adams warned McFarlin and SMU that the ACREQ shows might offend some members of the community. But the school supported the performances, he says; the auditorium was full.

“It’s a crap shoot.” says Adams of his adventurous approach to programming. The signed photographs and posters in his office are testament to the fact that artists from around the world appreciate his gambling. Peering down from bookshelves and walls in TITAS’ Oak Lawn headquarters are images of Glass. Baryshnikov. Martins. Morris, Parsons, Anderson. and others who have scribbled notes of gratitude to TITAS. In the hallway outside Adams’ office is a trash can lid autographed by STOMP.

You’d think the city’s well-heeled patrons would line up to throw money at such a unique organization. But the fact is that TITAS, one of the savviest presenting groups in town, is one of the least understood, or funded, by die private sector-and in some ways that reflects a shortcoming on the non-profit’s part. As urbane as TITAS is with its programming, the group hasn’t been as successful in letting the public know what its goals are or what it’s really about-a difficult thing for an entity that occupies a netherworld between Dallas’ powerful arts institutions and its truly marginal organizations, TITAS is not big; it’s not small. It’s not highbrow; it’s not not. It brings in ballet and postmodern dance, multimedia operas and multicultural extravaganzas. AuntBessie-will-love-it blockbusters and what-the-hell puzzlers that leave audiences baffled.

So, what’s an edgy outfit like TITAS doing in a play-it-safe arts community like Dallas?

There’s nothing else like TITAS in town, which means that it owns the wide-open alternative arts market. If there is one. On the other hand, the city’s more powerful arts patrons haven’t exactly popped open their checkbooks to fund the group’s efforts-and perhaps that’s because, artistically and financially, the organization is considerably more high-risk than other established institutions. It’s too…unpredictable.

“I like to tell our audiences that buying a season subscription is like investing in a mutual fund. It’s diverse and it’s long-term growth,” Adams says. “I just want you to stay with me.”

So far, audiences have. But despite its dreams of securing a few Dallas-style Medicis-or Basses-TITAS still has relatively few individual contributors and corporate season-ticket holders. Most of its $2 million budget comes from subscription sales. And for a group whose viability is seeded in freshness and financial flexibility, that won’t cut it long-term. Not if the group plans to keep expanding its repertoire, which includes an outreach program that engages artists such as trumpet player Wynton Marsalis and ballerina Dame Darcey Bussell to teach master classes while they’re in town.

Relatively few people outside the city’s educational institutions know, for instance, that through its “Crossroads” program, TITAS arranged for Laurie Anderson to give a master class in composition at SMU when she came to town for a performance in the early ’90s.

“It was at the time of the big Jesse Helms flap with the NEA,” Adams recalls, “and the students wanted her to comment on it. I remember her saying something to the effect of ’I’m not your Joan of Arc. I don’t have all the answers.’”

In her world premiere of Moby Dick last spring, Anderson kept viewers riveted, and rather mystified, as the stage morphed into a ship, a library, an ocean-a larger-than-life-size blank slate on which the composer meticulously inscribed her interpretation of Melville’s novel, drawing from past and present ideas about man’s place in the universe. The characters and images simultaneously evoked 19th century intellectual spiritualism and Y2K futurism, as Anderson exhibited her techno-wizardry by using a “talking stick” to manipulate her vocal tones, while incorporating overtly cheeky theatrical elements from a bygone era. It was an epic show and the work of a bona fide entertainer- but it was obvious that Songs and Stories from Moby Dick was still finding its legs, conceptually. As ambitious as the production was, and as lushly executed as the music, the visuals and the movements of the actors were, the, piece lacked the cohesion of her previous works. Which is clearly one reason why Anderson chose to premiere it in Dallas. Ultimately, it was a work in progress. McFarlin reached only 60 percent capacity during the three-night stand, Dallas got to see Moby Dick first.

Asked how she felt about debuting the piece here, Anderson says. “To tell you the truth, I’m very relieved it’s going to be in Dallas because I’ve found that the audiences are in many ways more open to experimental work. You do something in New York and everybody is dressed in black, and they ask how does it address this or that…paradigm.’”

Maybe Anderson knows something about Dallas that its citizens don’t understand about themselves. Her observations reflect a belief that in George W. Bush country the audiences aren’t as jaded or uptight about their envelope pushing as locals might believe. And if that seems odd. it’s also comforting. If that’s the case, then it also seems odd thai the organization remains marooned between grass roots and establishment status.

Is it possible, then, that the real dilemma for Dallas, and by extension for TITAS, is a self-image issue? The city has been known to fret that it’s not hip enough or cool enough and, at the same time, turn up its nose a( opportunities to cultivate the avant-garde. The organization that strives to become a midsize non-institutional institution has had to walk a son of high wire, keeping advenlure-seekers happy while trying to lure a more mainstream support base. If the programming is too edgy, then the group risks scaring off (he potential Medicis, the Daddy Warbucks; thus, Adams tries to strike a balance by having a little KODO drumming here; a little Whirling Dervishes there; a dash of STOMP to tame I the exotic flavors of, say. the Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices.

Longtime TITAS subscriber John Reoch, who says he appreciates the group’s juggling act. puts it this way: Dallas has to sustain TITAS without co-opting it, and TITAS has to sustain its edge without caving in to the big-institution safety net of investment/ return formulates. It’s that simple-or, rather, complicated.

A local attorney who frequents the city’s hippest and haute-est arts scenes. Reoch has been on practically every arts board in the city (except TITAS’) since he moved here from I Philadelphia in the mid-’80s. He says that all truly experimental organizations face the dilemma (hat plagues TITAS as it strives to gain mainstream social clout, while retaining its artistic integrity. The dilemma is just more pronounced in Dallas where, he says, “there are far more people that are members of the Symphony who are not only tone deaf, but go there because it’s a place where they know other people, or they can go to sleep, or they feel comfortable because their names are on the back of the chair.”

Local arts doyenne Shelby Marcus says the same, but with more Dallas-style aplomb. Before she and husband Larry were tapped to host TITAS’ 1998 “Command Performance.” a soiree that brings in the most renowned performers in the ballet world, Marcus says that she wasn’t exactly sure what TITAS was. “I had assumed that it was only a presenter, like an artsy version Of Pace Productions. When we were asked to chair the event,I didn’t even know it was nonprofit. For that reason. I was almost reluctant to do it.”

But after the event, which included Rasta Thomas on the bill, the Marcuses were sold, she says. T1TAS was more helpful and organized with its volunteer efforts than practically any group she’d dealt with-and besides that, Marcus adds. “TITAS brings the top ballet stars in the world. And you see them in one evening, and you see them dance their best dance. Men that you have to pull away from ballgames were just jumping up {in response to Thomas’ highly athletic style). And that may make them want to subscribe next year.”

Like Sis Carr, another arts patron who has thrown her considerable name and energy behind the nonprofit, Shelby Marcus believes that TITAS is an organization whose time has come. She knows full well the difficulties that face arts groups-arts groups of all sizes-in all parts of the country. She knows also that Dallas is a conservative business town, one that doesn’t easily open its doors to the new or the artistically challenging. But with TITAS, the fact that it may sometimes be considered too avant-garde or too ethnic or too unpredictable isn’t a bad thing; it’s a good thing. She thinks the city is catching on and committing its money and time more consistently-particularly younger audiences and non-Anglo audiences. And those are the audiences that have increasingly come to represent Dallas today-not the exclusive old guard set, Mrs. Marcus says.

“Actually, 1 believe TITAS is beginning to have a very broad patron base. You see people there who are in their40s, in college, even younger. And you see retired people there. That is rather encouraging. As for why TITAS doesn’t function as a high-society scene maker, she counters: Why would it want to?

“There are younger people who don’t want to go to the Symphony because it’s almost all white-haired patrons. With the Dallas Theater Center, if there is something younger audiences want to see, absolutely, they go. But I don’t know if TITAS even wants to be one of those heavy, huge entities because that takes some of the spontaneity away from what Tom is trying to do. People talk about going to New York or London to see something and then they brag about it when they come back. Tom is trying to bring that to us. With his programming, it may not always be something you love, but you can go and say, ’My God, what a weird thing we saw tonight,” and still, you talk about it. Then maybe three years down the 1ine, you hear about il, and yon can’t even get tickets in New York.”

Certainly, it helps to have a Shelby and Larry Marcus or a Sis Carr or a Henry and Juanita Miller associated with the organization. And increasingly, when T1TAS hosts its annual Command Performances, the bigger corporations are stepping forward. For the formal gala, which has introduced 33 internationally known ballet dancers to Dallas since it was inaugurated five years ago. Northern Trust Bank has always been the main underwriter. Recently, Neiman Marcus agreed to cohost the March 2000 “Stars of International Ballet” show and reception.

In TITAS, then, one finds an intriguing case study of Dallas’ fickle love affair with the arts. In a way the group provides a potential microcosm of the community-a pop culture/pop psychology exploration of the city’s more perplexing personality traits. Historically, local gentry have poured millions into safe-bet producers like the Dallas Theater Center or the Dallas Museum of Art, but they’ve remained noncommittal about an international showcase like TITAS. Part of that may be due to the fact that people haven’t been sure what TITAS is, and part of it may be that they’re not into whirling dervishes or yodeling Eastern European women in folk dress. Pari of it might also be that Dallas itself is in a period of transition – of redefining itself as a city.

For instance, while TITAS has cultivated enough repeat subscribers to keep itself afloat, in the past few years the organization has tapped the emerging Asian population, which has not only given substantial donations, but offered in-kind support. As Adams points out, Asians have consistently shown up for performances such as the Sankai Juku dance company of Japan, the Samulnori drum mers of Korea, the Festival of Indonesia/Music and Dance of Sumatra, and Mystical Arts of Tibet.

Not surprisingly, for the current season. Adams booked the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble of India, in addition to the more mainstream dance troupe. Pilobolus- which served as TITAS” inaugural show in 1983. The group performed at McFarlin in early October.

Adams, ever the chatty showman who gets on stage at each performance to give his “we need your subscriptions” spiel, says he’s thrilled to have both groups under his umbrella this year. He only hopes he can get more money, more long-term investors, to help TITAS continue pushing the creative envelope. Adams can pretty much rest assured that those who already champion TITAS will stay with him. Meanwhile, he’ll have to maintain the “crap shoot” philosophy that has made the organization such a fascinating and enigmatic entity in Dallas- the approach that has made TITAS a godsend for lovers of top-notch international performance. Otherwise, he’ll have to call it quits. and let the theater go black, which is obviously not an option. It’s not that the organization is in danger of folding, Adams explains; it’s just that he’s holding out for the crap shoot’s sevens and elevens-the winning combination that adds up to more donations, more buzz, more clout.

While TITAS hopes to hit the proverbial jackpot ( the one that dispenses acceptance by Old Dallas), the group might be content in the knowledge that it is helping the city break some old patterns-habits like judging itself too harshly, and conversely letting itself off too easily. Dallas has always labored under the Cinderella syndrome; it longs to be the belle of the ball, the creme de la creme, but it still views itself as a stepsister to cultural centers like New York and Los Angeles. ’This city is so, so progressive in business. and it likes to take chances,” says Reoch. ’”But i( also wants the odds to be in its favor. Dallas is very rule oriented, goal oriented. It requires that you play within the lines, whereas TITAS is about exploring places where lines don’t go….”

Adams tells anyone who will listen that he knows the city appreciates what his organization offers; otherwise, it would have folded long ago. He also can see how. in subtle ways. TITAS can be a crystal ball for what might lie in Dallas” future-more ethnic diversity, a more tolerant community- and a more generous and adventurous culture. He’s not altogether convinced that the city doesn’t embody those things anyway, even if he’s not yet found TITAS’ Hamon or Bass.

“Dallas really is strange in that it’s conservative, and yet underneath that business suit is a whole other personality. 1 love this city. It’s been good to us.” Adams effuses. He points out that Dallas has grown steadily every year for the past 25 years; it’s expanded in terms of population, demographics, cultural sophistication, he says. The city’s old guard white core is having to make way for newcomers, who are increasingly shaping the city’s identity-and those same newcomers may well comprise the patron base that TITAS seeks. They are company transfers from the West and East Coasts, from Europe and the Orient, and invariably they are pleased to learn about TITAS.

It gives them the sense that their new town is an international city.

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