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Blumenthal Performing Arts
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Winter 2023
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A Window on the World
Inaugural Charlotte International Arts Festival Served up Diverse experiences from around the Globe and locally
by Liz Rothaus Bertrand
"Birdmen" from The Netherlands at the Government Center
Blumenthal Fellows project
Blumenthal Fellows project "Queen Charlotte's Secret Garden" by Kimberly McGuire
"Bloom" performed by Australia's SWAY
Lotty the interactive squid by Moradavaga
Lotty the interactive squid by Moradavaga
United Kingdom's
United Kingdom's "Luminarium" from Architects of Air by Alan Parkinson
Photos by Brian Twitty
By nearly any measure, Blumenthal Performing Arts’ inaugural Charlotte International Arts Festival was a huge success. A multiweek celebration with more than 200 events taking place across the city, it drew artists from around the globe and thousands of people from across the region and beyond.
With a wide variety of acts, ranging from aerial dancing on the side of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center building, to giant sculptures and immersive experiences, to new creations taking place in parks and stages stretching from uptown to Ballantyne, the festival offered unparalleled access for Charlotteans to discover thrilling acts and artistry from more than 10 countries.
It was also an opportunity for audiences and visiting artists to experience the dynamism, diversity and creativity that’s taking root in Charlotte, with performances and installations by local artists ready to delight and surprise. The festival was like Charlotte opening a colossal window on the world, offering fresh perspectives on the future of arts and entertainment here.
Bringing the World to Charlotte
The festival brought many “you’ve got to see it to believe it” arts experiences all around Charlotte, at a scale unlike anything the city has hosted before.
From across the globe came interactive performances like “Birdmen,” the enigmatic, human-operated creatures from The Netherlands’ Close-Act Theatre Company. The towering birds intrigued fans wherever they trekked.
Nearby, “Luminarium” by the United Kingdom’s Architects of Air offered a super-sized, billowing, light-filled inflatable sculpture that more than 16,000 visitors explored during the festival.
Thirty feet up, acrobatic actors from Italy’s eVenti Verticali performed their comic adventure “Wanted” while suspended in front of an animated, video game-inspired backdrop.
Across uptown, there were pop-up performances featuring internationally acclaimed flamenco dancers alongside groups like Australia’s mesmerizing SWAY performing “Bloom!” with colorfully clad acrobats swaying and twirling while perched atop 15-foot poles. There were dozens of daytime and evening concerts, intriguing art installations from the miniscule to the massive, and even a debuting musical event.
Blackstar Symphony: The Music of David Bowie makes its world premiere at Belk Theater during the festival. Pictured from left, guest vocalist John Cameron-Mitchell; David Poe, vocals and guitar; Gail Ann Dorsey, vocals and guitar; Tim Davis, conductor/orchestrator; and Donny McCaslin, artistic director and saxophonist.
Blackstar Symphony: The Music of David Bowie – a reimagined take on David Bowie’s final album – made its world premiere at CIAF. Guests traveled from as far away as England for the highly-anticipated event that brought together artists like Donny McCaslin, who was Bowie’s musical partner and saxophonist on the original album; Tony Award-winner John Cameron-Mitchell; renowned musician Gail Ann Dorsey, Bowie’s bassist and back-up singer for more than two decades; and the 65-member Charlotte Symphony Orchestra.
“To have it sort of all come together at that arts festival in Charlotte, with the audience, with the orchestra, the conductor … and to have it all feel like it couldn't have gone any better, it was really an unforgettable experience,” says McCaslin, the artistic director. “And to have the audience react that strongly right from the get go, it felt magical. It felt like the fulfillment of so, so much work.”

There were unique international-local mashups too. Australian artist Amanda Parer’s 39-foot inflated sculpture “Man” was accompanied for the first time by an original soundscape, created by Emmy Award-winning local composer Jason Hausman.
Man - Yoga.jpeg
Emmy Award-winning local composer Jason Hausman provided an original soundscape for Australian artist Amanda Parer’s 39-foot inflated sculpture “Man,” which provided an ideal backdrop for a variety of activities.
Charlotte-based dancer/choreographer Ana Ogbueze was stunned when she found out her photo would be used on one of the giant balloon heads created by the trio of German street artists known as Mentalgassi. The group's whimsical urban artwork has transformed outdoor spaces around the world, from Barcelona to Brooklyn, and Rio de Janeiro to Rome.
The group had visited Charlotte in June to get a feel for the city and look for local faces to feature in their artwork. They met Ogbueze – who is also Blumenthal’s marketing and publicity manager – at a dinner introducing artists and staff, and they asked if they could photograph her.
No promises were made at the moment they took her photo, but jokingly they told her, "Don't be surprised if you find your face on the side of a trash can in Germany!"
A few months later, she learned her image would be among those featured at the festival.
“I think my jaw dropped for a solid 10 minutes,” Ogbueze says. “... It was by far the coolest moment of my life. I told my parents I’ve made it now, I’m a work of art, literally.”
German artists Mentalgassi transferred to giant balloons images of local faces, including, from left, two-time National Poetry Slam champion Carlos Robson, a local creative who Blumenthal partners with for programming; Boris "Bluz" Rogers, Blumenthal's director of creative engagement; and dancer/choreographer Ana Ogbueze, who is also Blumenthal’s marketing and publicity manager.
Educational Opportunities
Bringing international artists from around the globe to Charlotte also created unique educational opportunities for all ages. Blumenthal’s Education team worked to identify community groups that would especially benefit from visiting artists’ skills and expertise. And like many other events the Education department offers throughout the year, these professional development workshops and learning opportunities were provided at no cost to the community.
“The bulk of them were more advanced experiences,” says Blumenthal Vice President of Education Andie Maloney, which she says made them perfect for groups with some base knowledge who would be able to grow in their craft by working with international professionals.
For example, one special workshop for early childhood educators came from members of the artistic team behind Australia’s Polyglot Theatre, whose delightful “Bees” production buzzed around Romare Bearden Park throughout the festival.
"Bees" from Australia’s Polyglot Theatre frolick about at Romare Bearden Park. The group worked with Blumenthal's Education department to put on workshops, special interactive activities with preschool teachers and live preschool performances.
The workshop beamed in direct from Australia via Zoom, while the U.S.-based company that performed at CIAF participated in interactive activities alongside local preschool teachers. The following week, Blumenthal also arranged for the company to bring several live performances of “Bees” to the Morrison YMCA Preschool in Ballantyne for the children to enjoy.
Teachers loved the hands-on, collaborative activities presented, which could be easily executed in their own classrooms, says Shana Templin, director of Arts Integration and Visual Art at the Morrison YMCA. “As a director, I liked that the activities fostered teamwork and creativity amongst staff … the activities were especially useful in inspiring teachers who do not have an arts background and are new to arts integration.”
Another Australian company, SWAY, whose artists performed atop 15-foot sway poles in their production “Bloom!” at CIAF, wanted to offer a cirque/acrobatics class. Blumenthal worked with CarlosAlexis Cruz, producing artistic director of Nouveau Sud – the Charlotte-born contemporary social circus – to make the opportunity available to his company as well as students at Central Piedmont Community College.
Meanwhile, participants in the Theatre Gap Initiative met with company members from Italy’s eVenti Verticali. Theatre Gap Initiative is a new nonprofit, college prep program to help students of color prepare for and better navigate the application process for a bachelor’s degree in fine arts.
In the meeting, students got the chance to ask the international performers about their art and training. Working on the ground, students got to try on the harnesses used in aerial performances and see how all of the components worked. They also participated in team-building exercises that gave them a feel for the tension and trust required when you’re attached to another person and working mid-air.
“It was really, really fun,” says student Alicia Brown, who hopes to pursue a career in musical theater performance someday. It was the first time she had worked with artists from another country.
“It was nice to see how our different cultures contrasted with each other,” Brown says. “There was a bit of a language barrier at some point but in the end, we were all able to unite around this art and this interest we all have in it. It was … beautiful.”
Mexico Beyond Mariachi performs at Romare Bearden Park during the festival.
New Audiences
With so many free and low-cost events and installations available day and night for more than two weeks around the city, Blumenthal made arts experiences more accessible to the community than ever before.
“In Charlotte, I’ve never heard as many different languages spoken as I did wandering through the crowds that turned out at Ballantyne’s Backyard to enjoy the big art and free shows there,” says Blumenthal President and CEO Tom Gabbard. “With CIAF, we’re creating something wonderful for our entire community.”
The festival’s focus on celebrating international cultures and diverse programming also created new opportunities to welcome people who may have never visited one of Blumenthal’s spaces before. Most festival events were free, but at those requiring tickets, some revealing data emerged.
For example, at the Latin music-inspired “Salsapalooza” and the Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef’s comedy show, nearly 50 percent of attendees were first-time ticket buyers. Other performances, like the Spanish-infused Tablao Flamenco and the multiple Grammy Award-winning Afro-Latin jazz musician Aturo O’Farrill, drew a quarter of their audiences from first-time ticket buyers.
The Levine Avenue for the Arts tent allowed audiences to see diverse performers from around the region for free daily during the festival.
For local musician Jose Ayala, whose band Furia Tropikal performed in Knight Theater for the International Tosco Music Party and outdoors at the Levine Avenue Stage, the festival was a reminder of how far Charlotte has come. When he relocated to the area from New York about 20 years ago, his group played at small festivals. At that time, Latin American music was really a niche market, he says.
The band, composed of musicians originating from countries like Ecuador, Puerto Rico, El Salvador, Colombia and Mexico, has built its reputation over the years playing covers by “most of the greats from throughout Latin America,” Ayala says. But these days their music is drawing a much wider crowd.
“You have Anglo people, you have Latin American, you have Hindus listening to our music,” he says.
“This area here has a diversity of people – people coming from all over the place. This has become the new melting town. Everybody is here. When everybody integrates into one festival like that, it's very, very nice because everybody’s back together again (post-pandemic).”
Expanding the Stage
The festival also introduced new spaces, such as Ballantyne’s Backyard, to the larger community as hubs of creativity. The new park was created in spring 2021, transforming a former golf course into 100 acres of green space. It is part of a multiyear development plan to make the area more walkable, urban and interesting, says Hailey Rorie, director of community relations at Northwood Office.
The commercial real estate group is overseeing a new mixed use development project known as Ballantyne Reimagined. Part of that vision is to reengage thousands of area office workers with a more vibrant cultural life right outside their doors.
The Charlotte International Arts Festival extended it's reach into Ballantyne's Backyard. Here Italy's eVenti Verticali performs "Wanted."
The momentum has been building with various events, including the Van Gogh hot air balloon visit in fall 2021, monthly markets and CREATE Ballantyne, a collaboration between ArtPop, The Savage Way, Charlotte is Creative and Blumenthal to bring more arts and culture to the area.
But CIAF was a game-changer.
“When Blumenthal came in with all these larger-than-life art installations, it really raised the bar,” Rorie says. “... it was really cool to see a space on our property activated in a way like it’s never been before. And South Charlotte and beyond – the whole region – they were eating it up!”
From young professionals enjoying outdoor “walking meetings” or hosting team-building events during the day, to families with their dogs and strollers, to retirees looking for a pleasant outing, Rorie says the festival was something that could be easily accessed and enjoyed by all.
“We want to be known as the go-to place for meaningful experiences, for quality fun,” Rorie says, “and partnerships like this are just so critical to the success of the future of our property.”
In uptown Charlotte, too, placemaking helped animate the city in innovative ways. That’s something that Audrey Baran, artistic director of the local contemporary dance company Baran Dance, appreciated. She collaborated with composer Ryan Persaud on the original dance and music piece “Grid” for the festival.
“The place where we were in Romare Bearden Park was really cool, and they had the little biergarten set up along Levine Avenue (of the Arts) that was super fun,” says Baran, who was among the 2022 cohort of local artists known as Blumenthal Fellows. “And the back-to-back rotation of works and artists that they presented, it really encouraged people to stick around and to see a lot of different works.”
Left, crowds mingle in Blumenthal's biergarten, a popular addition to the festival. Right, there was something for all ages at the festival.
While there were massive installations, high-flying acts and pop-up performances in the park, the biergarten was constantly buzzing with activity. Visitors could sit at picnic tables painted by local artists, enjoy a wide variety of bands on the Levine Avenue Stage, and even try their luck on giant communal board games like chess and Connect 4.
You could also taste a brand-new beer there, brewed specifically for the festival. “Brush Stroke,” a hazy IPA crafted by Heist Brewery was so successful that Blumenthal will now offer it in its theater concessions for select performances.
Blumenthal even transformed the walk between Knight Theater and Belk Theater into an opportunity for playful fun through “100 Tiny Things.” More than 50 local artists contributed to the installation, which provided a scavenger hunt-like thrill that office workers and festival visitors alike could enjoy.
When Hurricane Ian threatened to disrupt the final weekend of the festival, Blumenthal quickly pivoted to continue bringing entertainment to the community. Several acts were moved indoors to the SouthPark Mall, facilitating a total of 18 free family-friendly pop-up events.
"100 Tiny Things" placements all over town add a little whimsy to the festival.
Introducing Charlotte to the World
The festival also provided artists and visitors the chance to discover all that Charlotte has to offer.
When Kay Melief from "Birdmen" finished up performing for the day at Ballantyne’s Backyard, he and other company members frequently made their way uptown to enjoy local performances. He was impressed by the variety of entertainment possibilities available at the festival.
“It was interesting to me that at night there were different artists and the crowd also was totally different every night,” he says.
“Sometimes it was a folk band and there were a lot of people just watching there clapping along, and then there (were) some hip-hop artists and everyone was dancing, and another night there was some jazz band and everyone just really enjoying the music.”
A Baran Dance company dancer performs "Grid" at Romare Bearden Park, which was one of the Blumenthal Fellows projects.
Claudia Muresu, production manager of Italy’s eVenti Verticali, was impressed by what she described as Charlotte’s “rich cultural life.” She also enjoyed the area’s amenities.
“We loved it, really. We loved the festival – the area, it was super sunny, a very nice city, very good food and the area of the show (Ballantyne’s Backyard) was amazing,” she says. “We really liked the fact that it was in a beautiful park and there were so many families.”
Bringing international and local artists together also helped build connections and spark creative conversations, and offered the chance to learn from one another, says Blumenthal Director of Artistic Experiences Bree Stallings. It’s something she hopes will continue to grow with future versions of the festival.
“I think it was really impactful for the international artists to get to meet and network with the local artists,” she says.
For example, she remembers when Jason Hackenwerth – the internationally acclaimed balloon artist behind the massive sculpture “Reclamation ” in Knight Theater during CIAF – took his family to see Blumenthal Fellow Elizabeth Palmisano's work “Wishes and Whispers” at the Two Wells Fargo plaza.
“(He) stayed for like an hour looking at her installation,” Stallings says, “and then told our whole team that it made his entire experience and was his favorite piece in the festival as a whole. I know they've connected on Instagram and continue to network.”
Jason Hackenwerth's balloon sculpture “Reclamation ” fills the Knight Theater upper lobby with a burst of color.
Other events like “Ask the Artists Anything,” gave artists the opportunity to share stories and learn from one another. Local artists took copious notes about how to grow their practice and business, Stallings says, while international performers loved having the opportunity to talk shop with other high-performing groups.
The festival also provided the opportunity for Charlotte to showcase homegrown productions, including “We Are Hip Hop,” a full weekend of programming featuring dance, music and graffiti by some of the region’s best hip-hop artists; and “Project: FULL OUT,” an opportunity for second-chance dancers to show off their skills.
It was the perfect occasion, too, for I Am Queen: Charlotte to debut its second iteration. The show, created by poet Hannah Hasan, is the stage adaptation of stories celebrating the lives of local Black women – a co-production between Epoch Tribe and Blumenthal. It may eventually tour and be adapted to other markets.
Booth Playhouse is transformed into a nightclub setting for the Big Zydeco Friday: Bayou Bash in the Booth.
“Charlotte is this fast-growing community,” says Blackstar Symphony’s McCaslin. “To have a festival like this and to help expose people of multiple generations to art is a great thing … and to help draw attention to that and let people know that they have access to this and it’s affordable, I think is great.
“I mean, as a society, we need art to help in so many ways," he says. "It’s a great outlet for people who maybe don’t know how to speak about something that’s happening to them but they’re able to express it through art or to experience it as they listen to music.
“It's an expression of the human condition, but it’s also for people who are not necessarily artists themselves that are so touched and moved by art," says McCaslin. "And to have that accessible to this burgeoning community is, I think, really positive and important."
As does Blumenthal. The next Charlotte International Arts Festival is already scheduled. Mark your calendars for Sept. 15-Oct. 1, 2023! ◼