It’s a striking scene: Dozens of men and women, wearing simple dresses and pants, dance across a dirt-covered stage. Originally performed in 1975, choreographer Pina Bausch’s iconic Rite of Spring (coming to Cal Performances for the first time on February 16) uses movement to tell the story of winter brought to a close through ritual human sacrifice.
This is just one of eight performances that will explore the theme of “Individual and Community” as part of Cal Performances’ 2023-24 Illuminations series.
Executive and Artistic Director Jeremy Geffen started Illuminations soon after starting his tenure in 2019. Along with the artists, UC Berkeley professors and researchers join in exploring the theme for the season with discussions and conversations before or after the performances—giving the public a unique window into what’s going on at the university.
“The performing arts present an opportunity to view pressing issues of our time through a non-didactic lens, where you are in an empathic experience,” Geffen said. “We choose a theme that is also a vehicle through which we can provide a platform for the research and the expert figures found in that area on the UC Berkeley campus.”
Each year, the Cal Performances team builds the theme around one or two performances they know they want to bring to Berkeley. The first performance they chose for this year’s series is Matt Ray and Taylor Mac’s Bark of Millions: A Parade Trance Extravaganza for the Living Library of the Deviant Theme (opens February 23), a four-hour rock opera that meditates on queerness through 54 original songs — one for every year since the Stonewall uprising, a six-day protest after a police raid on a gay club in Greenwich Village.
Katy Tucker, Cal Performances’ director of artistic planning, said she was excited to bring Mac, a MacArthur Fellow, Kennedy Award winner, and Pulitzer Prize nominee (and Stockton native), to the Zellerbach stage. Mac is known for the epic musical retelling of American History, “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music.”
“I think Taylor’s particular way of sharing his life experience, and his personage is really touching and meaningful,” Tucker said. “It felt like a story that he would be perfectly poised to tell, and that our audiences would be perfectly poised to receive.”
Silkroad Ensemble’s American Railroad, which opens November 17, presents another angle on the theme. Led by Grammy and Pulitzer Prize-winning Rhiannon Giddens, the show centers on the creation of the Transcontinental Railroad and the unsung communities that were involved in building it, including Chinese immigrants, African Americans, and indigenous Americans.
“It’s an opportunity to explore the diversity that lies within a monolithic construct,” Geffen said.
The diversity of programs in the Illuminations series and the larger season schedule is part of Cal Performances’ uniqueness, according to Geffen.
“There are very few, if any other places in the country, that represent the spectrum of performances and events that Cal Performances includes in one of our typical seasons,” he said. “From all forms of classical music —orchestral to chamber to new music—as well as jazz and artists who represent musical traditions from around the world, to large-scale dance like ballet companies to modern companies to small nimble contemporary dance companies to the types of theater and multi-disciplinary projects.”
Also coming to Cal Performances this year is artist in residence Mitsuko Uchida, the multi-time Grammy Award winning pianist whom Geffen described as a “guru of the piano,” and grandmaster.
Mina Girgis, director of education, campus, and community engagement for Cal Performances, says Illuminations highlights the research happening on campus.
He added that the theme seemed relevant with the upcoming 2024 presidential election, especially with political parties whose differences often arise around questions of individual rights. “There’s a tension in the way that the U.S. sees the concept of the individual today from individual liberties and freedoms on both sides of the party lines,” he said.
This season’s series, with its exploration of the individual and the community, also resonates with what Cal Performances does, Tucker said.
“We had an early lightbulb moment that ensemble performance is a very direct manifestation of this,” she said. “You have a group of individuals who come together on stage to create something greater than the sum of their parts.”
“On a metaphorical level, what happens on stage is, as an example of a well-functioning community, and every performer has their role to play,” he said. “Ultimately, it is the cohesive whole of that performance that makes the impact.”