Arts & Culture
2:37 pm
Mon December 5, 2011

'A Gathering': The Largest Stage Collaboration in North Texas History

Worldwide, more than 25 million people have died of AIDS since 1981. The epidemic has prompted tonight's performance at the Winspear Opera House, the largest collaboration on a single stage event in North Texas history. KERA’s Jerome Weeks talks to three of the artists involved in A Gathering.

  • Manny Mendoza's Dallas Morning News story (pay wall)
  • Expanded online story:

[Opening of  “Blue”] In A Gathering, choreographer Bruce Wood of the Bruce Wood Dance Project (above, with Charles Santos in rehearsal) will premiere three new dances. One is set to the Joni Mitchell song, “Blue.” In a rehearsal studio at Southern Methodist University, three dancers repeatedly lift each other, prop each other up, even as they slide to the floor. Wood: “The idea is basically about support. It goes back to the day when everybody was just kind of scrambling to help other people out because there was no institutions at that point, there was no recognition this was even happening, there was a lot of discrimination. So it was an all-hands-on-deck kind of thing.” Wood is talking about the ‘80s, when AIDS ripped through gay communities across the U.S.  The arts were particularly hard-hit. At the time, Wood was a member of the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company.

Wood: “You know, all my friends died. It was just that simple. All the guys that I hung out with that were dancers, they all died within a matter of a couple of years, and all the guys that I hung out with that weren't dancers, they all died. So … it’s about my memory of them. And what happened.” It wasn’t simply the death toll that horrified. It was the frightening lack of basic information. There were no blood tests for the HIV virus, no known treatments for AIDS. Joel Ferrell is artistic associate of the Dallas Theater Center and one of the producers of A Gathering. In the early ‘80s, he was a young actor in New York. Ferrell: “I certainly remember that five years where, you know, doctors looked at you and said, ‘We don’t have a clue. Good luck.” The fundraising beneft, A Gathering: The Dallas Arts Community Reflects on 30 Years of AIDS, is not entirely about grief or anger.  

But deciding what the one-night-only gala should say was hard, says Charles Santos. He’s the director of TITAS, the music and dance presenter at the AT&T Performing Arts Center. A Gathering was Santos’ idea originally -- he conceived it as something of a "deconstructed musical" or "concert musical," with songs and dances but no sets or staging. Even so, it's a huge effort -- and Santos credits fellow producer Chris Heinbaugh with marshaling the troops. Heinbaugh is external affairs director of the AT&T PAC. The evening they planned covers 30 years, involves some 200 North Texas artists from nearly a dozen organizations -- and it had to be planned and implemented in only four months. Mercifully, Santos had experience assembling AIDS benefits in Austin before this, but he credits Chris Heinbaugh, external affairs director of the PAC, with assembling the troops. All of the artists from area groups, including the Dallas Black Dance Theatre, the Dallas Opera and the SMU Meadows School of the Arts, are donating their efforts equally to four area AIDS organizations: AIDS Arms, AIDS Interfaith Network, AIDS Services of Dallas and Resource Center Dallas.

A Gathering will feature dance performances, solo songs and videos as well as dramatic scenes from such plays as The Normal Heart and Angels in America. But Santos says the backbone of the show is the Turtle Creek Chorale. Over the years, the singing group has lost 180 members to AIDS. The group's  efforts to deal with its losses were the subject of a 1993 KERA documentary, After Goodbye: An AIDS Story, which aired last week on KERA-TV. Santos: “I don’t think we all recognize how fabulous the Turtle Creek Chorale is. These guys can sing. That was one of the discussions early on. We all have the ability to call a bunch of superstar names to come in and do this. And then we thought, ‘You know, we don’t need to do that. We have plenty of talent here.” Eventually, Santos and Ferrell realized how to shape A Gathering. The evening had to encompass death and grief. But it also must touch on the engagement of family and friends, calls to political action, even the development of community and medical responses from scratch. Ferrell: “We got a little frustrated because there was so much to try to take in, that I finally said, ‘Well, at least in terms of the gay community, two things became clear, one shortly after the other. One, that we had to take care of our own. And the other was -- that we had to change the world.' ” [end of ‘Blue’]