Cast your mind back to this same time last year. Thanks to light-rail construction, Main Street was a blasted-out shell—an alien avenue. The highway system, or lack of one, fared no better. Like the circulatory system of someone in bad need of a quadruple bypass, the valley was clogged.
But for all that, and the construction we still endure, there was a small payoff. Sensing the grumpy mood of the populace, the Utah Arts Festival’s programming department wanted to turn the tables. In a small way, they succeeded. The first step was simple: a call to Ted Killmer, one of the nation’s most respected curators of ambient performance.
“The festival wanted something to remind people that we could still have fun in the streets,” Killmer says. “Last year the idea was so successful they brought it back.”
That idea was street performance, an art form so all-inclusive of every other art form that it becomes a kind of formless form. Sound confusing? Remember this simple rule of thumb: If it’s happening on the sidewalk, it’s street performance.
Nevertheless, Killmer is passionate in his insistence that this genre can only be understood free of labels. “I hate nomenclature that doesn’t make any sense,” he says, speaking from the 45th floor of his Manhattan residence.
“This is circus. This is vaudeville. This is stuff you used to find on Ed Sullivan. It’s variety, novelty and vernacular. Which means it’s accessible from high-brow to low-brow, yet still art. We are music, dance and theater. We just don’t like to be put into niches.”
When the festival phoned Killmer last year, he asked a barrage of questions: What is Salt Lake City like? What makes it unique? What elements of its layout lend themselves easily to a performance context? He then assembled a provocative lineup of national and international street performers. This year’s collection will push the envelope even further. For anyone who thinks the Utah Arts Festival is just a bunch of clay jars and one more chance to see the Saliva Sisters, that’s bound to sound refreshing.
This is not the traditional mime or juggler we’re talking about, either. It encompasses everything from stilts and go-go dancing to one-act skits by headless actors.
Killmer, true to his title, likes to call it all ambient art. “Those words mean exactly what they say,” he states. “Ambient performance is what you find in an environment that might surprise you.”
For Patti Smithsonian of Manitou, Colo., who will be traveling to Salt Lake City as part of the lineup, street performance is about resonating with the audience in an entirely different way. “On the stage, all theater is memorized,” she says. “For street performers it’s more about improvising as you go along. The audience knows that what you’re doing is real theater, not just something you’re rehearsing.”
And the ability to blend effortlessly into the social and aesthetic environment at hand is what separates the cream from the curd in the world of street performance. The manner in which that’s executed is what gives every act its own flavor. But, when prompted, Killmer would rather compare each act in this year’s lineup to a different alcoholic beverage. After all, according to the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, certain liquors are “flavorings.”
“Everyone who’s ever been to Utah knows that when you folks say flavor you’re really talking about alcohol,” he laughs. “I’ll never forget that one.”
So keep an eye out for one of these street performers at this year’s Arts Festival, and enjoy them in moderation:
Whalley Range All-Stars: Straight from Manchester, England, this community-based troupe gets part of its funding from Britain’s national Lottery. That fact will draw sneers from any Deseret News editorial staffer in the audience. Everyone else will enjoy the All-Stars’ “Parade of Senses,” a promenade of sight, sound, scent and sense. Don’t be surprised if one of them goes headless. “They’re like a good cognac,” Killmer says. The All-Stars take the festival two days, 1 p.m. Thursday, and throughout Friday.
Theater Schrikkel: Essentially a one-man act from Holland by the name of Jaap Slagman, this one’s sure to mesmerize. By putting his painted face into an empty frame, and through the sole use of facial expressions, Slagman tells whole stories. Some have called his act “living painting.” Killmer compares Theater Schrikkel to the best gin. The Dutchman will be at the festival throughout Saturday.
Gregangelo: Grab the Dramamine. California’s Gregangelo, a man determined to revive the traditions of the whirling dervish in a modern way, may induce terminal dizziness. The man dons handmade costumes weighing up to 150 pounds, then twirls away. Reading this, you might think that sounds like a new children’s toy, but Gregangelo’s performed in front of the president of the United States. Even Killmer says he’s in a class by himself. No alcohol for Gregangelo. Instead, he’s “a sparkling water.” The dervish descends throughout Friday.
Big Nazo: At last we come to an act incorporating rock & roll. And stand-up comedy. And go-go dancing. And pro wrestling. And a puppet band. You won’t have to look long or hard for this Rhode Island ensemble once they’ve arrived. Killmer’s verdict: “Definitely a tequila.” Watch for Big Nazo throughout Thursday, and 8:30 p.m. Sunday on the Plaza Stage.
Faceination: Face painting may be boring. Some people say Canadians are boring, too. Wrongo! This is high-class stuff, matching theatrical artwork with painting. Tipping his shot glass yet again, Killmer compares them to Absolut vodka. Faceination will be at the Art Street Stage, 2-6 p.m. Sunday.
Natalia Paruz: Saw music carries a long, proud tradition. This beautiful, young Israeli woman cut, or rather played, her way to the top of the saw heap some time ago. Bring the tool box, if you feel inclined. “She really believes in the tradition, so I’d liken her to a very fine Scotch,” Killmer says. Paruz will be at the festival throughout Sunday.
Patti Smithsonian: Puppets and accordion, but, of course, there’s a twist. Smithsonian uses her physical anatomy to make some of her puppets come alive. Meanwhile, her large dresses act as the stage. Very playful stuff, this, and just the ticket for children. Killmer’s alcoholic equivalent: peach brandy.
La Compagnie Des Quidams: The evening festival sky will be lit by these Frenchmen and women. Wearing draped, parachute-type costumes, and illuminated by special means, this group prods critical response with words like “celestial.” Oh yes, they also get around on stilts. “The comparison is inevitable: champagne,” Killmer says. Catch this French act Thursday evening.
Kismet & The Salt Lake Scots and Utah Chamber Music to Go: Where would all this be without some local representation? Lord only knows how any combination of the three—undulating flesh, bagpipes and string instruments—will jibe. “You wouldn’t want to hear bagpipes indoors now would you?” Killmer asks. “This should have some bite to it, so let’s make it a Sambuca liqueur with the coffee beans.” Watch for Kismet and The Salt Lake Scots throughout Thursday, and keep an ear out for Utah Chamber Music to Go throughout Sunday.
The Utah Arts Festival is open noon to midnight, June 24-26, and noon to 10 p.m. June 27 at the Triad Center. Admission is $5 for adults, free for children 12 and under. Phone 322-2428 for more information, or visit the festival’s website at www.uaf.org.