Arts Alive! 

Sometimes First Friday-the monthly, ne plus ultra chance for Missoula's artistic faithful to rub shoulders and drink wine as local galleries unveil their latest shows-does not fall on the first Friday.

Like last weekend, when the arts community was faced with a second-Friday gallery crawl. Solving the Sphinx-like dilemma of what to do when you know nobody's going to be around landed September's GAGA tour smack in the middle of the month. The move turned the beginning of Labor Day weekend-September's real first Friday-into a blank spot on Garden City's social agenda.

But with diverse, entertaining stuff on display in venues from campus to the outer rim of downtown, those who made the trek were well rewarded. As surely as the hordes of football fans who watched the Griz lose the next day marked a seasonal passage, the wine-and-cheese tasters proclaimed the beginning of fall, no matter what the calendar says about first Fridays or autumnal equinoxes.

In Missoula, fall is truly when the art community's collective pulse ratchets up. With school back in session, new permanent collections coming together at the Art Museum of Missoula and UM's Paxson Gallery, the annual Festival of the Dead in the offing and a couple big-ticket shows planned for private galleries, the dying months of 1998 should be plenty lively.

At the Art Museum of Missoula, Lulu Yee's kinetic, bizarre paintings seemed to be the hot stop on last Friday's walk. A former Missoula resident, Yee returned in a blaze of glory. Her bright, quasi-childish painting has only gotten better since she split for Iceland and other places.

"Collecting Miracles III," Yee's series of paintings and sculpture reminiscent of strange, ritualistic icons assembled by feral youths, will hang upstairs at the museum through October 17. Downstairs, one last burst of creativity from well-known Montana painter Freeman Butts celebrates landscapes both human and geologic.

While Butts died in May, museum director Laura Millin stresses that this show isn't an attempt at a retrospective. "It's a surprisingly moving show," she says. "It's really hard to separate the knowledge that the artist is gone from the experience of looking at the work itself.

"I'm really glad it's not a retrospective, actually, because Freeman was so excited about this last series, and doing it this way lets us do these particular paintings justice."

The museum will mark fall's progress into winter with a multi-artist, multi-media exhibition on the so-called birds of "ill omen"-crows, ravens and magpies. Timed to coincide with the Festival of the Dead, a Missoula tradition aimed at reconceiving death through an artistic lens, at the beginning of November, this exhibition will capture what Millin calls the "nocturnal energy" of the annual fete.

Millin also looks forward to the arrival of a travelling selection of work by Robert Pope examining the arts' relationship to sickness. Pope, a painter, died of cancer at the age of 35. His elegant, film-noirish images will be at the Museum from September 29 through October 2.

Work by students from Helena's prestigious Archie Bray Foundation ("Jar" by Mel Gaskins, shown here) is currently on display at SuttonWest. Art Work by Mel Gaskins

Robert Pope's explorations of sickness and healing (including "Sick," shown here) will be on display at the Art Museum of Missoula this fall. Art Work by Robert Pope

The remaining feature is in the Special Column

Inside MCT


Gone are the dust, the diesel-belching cement mixers, the backhoes and the suffocating smell of fresh blacktop. The air is pleasant, redolent of new carpet and freshly cut timber.

After almost two years of construction and renovation, the curtain is coming down on yet another stage in the 28-year history of the Missoula Children's Theatre.

MCT, a training and touring theater organization for child actors, is putting the final touches on its new and permanent home in the old Central School building on Broadway and Adams Streets in Missoula.

The troupe's co-founder and executive director Jim Caron plays the proud parent as he leads me on a brief tour of the new facility. With construction nearing completion, Caron and his associates have opened the new theater's doors to an understandably curious public, scheduling informal miniature tours much like the one I received.

Caron has been keeping close track of this massive renovation project since the first spadeful of earth was turned on September 30, 1996. Full to bursting with details and anecdotes, he spent an hour walking through the brand new complex, pointing out design highlights and recalling the adventures of the past two years.

MCT's new auditorium takes the place of the gymnasium in the old Central School, the second school located on the property, dating from 1935. Before now, MCT alternated performing in the Wilma Theatre and the Front Street Theatre. The gym was deepened and banked, but the enclosure is essentially the same one where past generations of children ate lunch and played basketball.

Exposed brick in the lobby is a reminder of the structure's utilitarian past, and Caron is quick to cite these holdovers as perfect examples of a "marriage" between old and new.

The overall effect of the lobby, a showplace of brushed aluminum and fine woodwork in cherry and white pine, is one of studied playfulness, a far cry from somber crystal and wine-dark mahoganies of a Night at the Opera, big-city style.

The space is bright but not showy, sophisticated without being stuffy, and most of all disarming. After all, this is a children's theater.

Underfoot races a busily-patterned carpet, which Caron admits was a bargain remnant of the same sturdy-yet-cheerful stuff in the Newark, N.J., airport. Overhead, the primary colors in the carpeting are reprised in a chandelier of Italian glass which hangs in spare, delicate cones. Wide expanses of lobby wall await the touch of local artists, including Larry Pirnie and Kendahl Jann Jubb.

Certain to draw the eye is the concession stand, a triumphant study by designer Abbott Norris in-of all things-marbles. Caron asserts that the stand will be a huge hit with young and old alike. In fact, there's even going to be a contest for kids to guess the correct number of marbles encased in glass in and around it.

Caron himself has yet to find out how many there are (offhand, it seems that a guess falling within the nearest thousand is a good one indeed.)

Naturally, the real showpiece of the new complex is the theater itself. Even the wall sconces are showstoppers, polished aluminum fixtures with blue glass insets, which radiate delicate florets of light onto the burgundy wallwork.

The new lobby of the MCT theater is bright but not showy, sophisticated without being stuffy, and most of all, disarming. Photo by Dan Engler

The remaining feature is in the Special Column

An interview with Chris Evans


Despite the fact that he's never been able to make a living as an artist in this town, actor-writer-director Chris Evans is on a high.

He's just come from seeing his hero Eric Bogosian, the monologist behind Talk Radio and Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll. Greg Johnson, the artistic director of the Montana Repertory Theatre and a professor at the University of Montana, has offered him partial control of the Young Rep, one of Missoula's few troupe's willing to stage edgy, controversial fare.

Evans, meanwhile, is also working on his own writing, including a play based on the Springfield, Oregon, schoolyard shootings.

So, when it comes to talking about theater and its role in the Garden City, it's understandable that Evans-who has been a central cog in Missoula's theater machine for close to a decade-remains cautiously optimistic despite the apparent dearth of productions outside of those he has some hand in.

"To a point, we have a vibrant theater community in this town. There are cities three times the size of this town, who don't have what we have," Evans opines. "But a lot of people who do theater here do it for free.

"They don't do it for the stardom, they do it because it's a blast."

In addition to the work he and Johnson will be doing with the Young Rep, Evans points to the Missoula Children's Theatre's recent renovations, Deny Stagg's summer productions at Fort Missoula and the University of Montana's theater program as signs of the lively "fire and passion" which attends the local scene.

"The thing that needs to get going is that we need to get people talking about theater again," Evans says. "Theater is not voyeurism. Television is voyeurism. Theater is saying what if you could walk in that person's shoes."

Evans goes on to say that he hopes to bring that sense of urgency to productions staged by the Young Rep. Listening to him speak, it's apparent that Evans expects the rep to keep both audiences and actors honest. With the decline in independent theater, he says, it's up to the Young Rep to make sure to incite others to think about life in different ways, and also to keep a wide lane open for other comers interested in taking the stage.

"I'm always going to be the burr in somebody's boot," he says, grinning, obviously up for the challenge.

Five Rivers Festival of Film


Attention cute baby seals, frolicking brown bears and bug-sucking praying mantises:

It's time to make room in the Garden City spotlight. There's a new film festival in town, and it's all about two-legged critters. And though the Five Rivers Festival of Film may be a raw rookie on the Missoula scene to the estimable International Wildlife Film Festival's seasoned veteran, all signs point to the newcomer providing an unparalleled experience for Western Montana film buffs.

For that matter, this festival may be the only one of its kind-anywhere. "I don't know of anybody who's doing what we are here," says co-director Lynne Shaara, speaking of the festival's emphasis on the behind-the-scenes components to filmmaking.

For four days this weekend, beginning on Thursday evening, aficionados will be treated to the films, thoughts and discussions of a stellar cast of industry heavyweights at the Wilma Theatre and elsewhere. According to Shaara, the directors, writers, editors, producers, production designers, cinematographers and sound technicians converging on the Garden City are "people at the absolute top in their fields."

Perhaps best of all, the festival provides an opportunity to hang out with the filmmakers, who will be assembled in loose panels at local coffee shops. Called "Confluences," these informal discussions will tackle topics such as the nuances of making a documentary film versus a feature fiction film, the progression of a script from page to screen, and the building of a hypothetical movie from the ground up.

If golden statues and other trophies are any indication, Shaara is dead-on in her assessment.

Maurice Lamy in the film On Va Nulle Part... et C'est Tres Bien, which will have its U.S. premiere this weekend at the Five Rivers festival. Photo from On Va Nulle C'est Tres Bien

The remaining feature is in the Special Column



As the arts season gets underway, Missoula's modern dance company, Montana Transport Company (a.k.a. Mo-Trans) has its eye focused down the road.

Missoula audiences will have to wait until New Year's for a performance, but co-directors Karen Kaufmann and Amy Ragsdale are digging in and digging deep to produce new work. "We're off," says Kaufmann. "We like to come up with a mostly new repertory every year."

Just back from Bumbershoot, Seattle's Labor Day arts festival-where Kauffman reports the group got a "strong response"-Mo-Trans turns its attention to the prospect of hosting three nationally-known guest choreographers: Jane Comfort, Heidi Latski and Larry Goldhuber.

Comfort, a New York choreographer whose work often makes social commentary, is setting an ensemble piece on Mo-Trans. Kaufmann says the project will likely be political, with a score that could include clips of politicians speaking. Latski and Goldhuber, former dancers of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company of New York, will teach a duet titled "It's not what you think" to Mo-Trans dancers Pat Flynn and Mary Beaulieu.

"It's a comedy with a dead pan sense of humor and great timing," says Kaufmann. Kaufmann says she is pleased Flynn, a male dancer with a quirky style and a favorite of Mo-Trans fans, will be participating despite the fact that he's living part-time in Seattle. He rounds out a roster which includes many of last year's dancers.

Ragsdale, who also teaches at the University of Montana, is back from a sabbatical. She says she's busier than ever, teaching classes, helping student choreographers, and working on several pieces for Mo-Trans.

Ragsdale is excited about a new "Charleston" piece, a dance in which the upper body does wildly different things while the feet follow a classic Charleston step. She's also choreographing a piece that combines dance with language and parts of speech, as well as working to bring together video and dance in a project that faces inherent difficulties in the production and staging.

With all these projects underway, Kaufmann stresses the diversity and quality of the Mo-Trans repertory. Over the years, Ragsdale and Kaufmann have placed a high priority on bringing in well-known artists from outside Montana. "I'm very proud of our repertory-which includes close to 50 pieces," Kaufmann says.

In addition to her work at the university and with Mo-Trans, Kaufmann is producing her annual site specific piece for the Drama/Dance Department on October 10 and 11, with pieces choreographed by 2 faculty and 6 students. Kaufmann describes it as "a very active experience for the audience."

"They get to have all the smells and sounds and sights of normal life as well as the performance itself," she says. "We have a devoted group of community members who come out-and its free."

Kaufmann's piece will have the audience standing on the Montana stage, while the performers will be in the audience. "A choreographer can use the space of real place," says Kaufmann.

"Site specific dance not only stretches the boundaries of what choreography and dance can be, but helps us all look at a place in a new way-in some cases you never see the place the same way again."

I had my first taste of site specific dance in Kaufmann's class last spring; 30-plus eclectically-dressed individuals ran, jumped and climbed around like kids on the walls, sidewalks, staircases and lawns surrounding the PARTV Building. Our task was to discover the character of the place and express it, to explore a place we had hitherto walked hurriedly past, to become more intimate with our surroundings.

We made that place sing. We became, literally, the expression of its character. Playful and strange, the exercise was valuable for what it made real in us, our senses of humor and drama and fun, our collaboration in a spontaneous event.

Other highlights of Missoula's fall season include:

• Dancer Youssouff Koumbassa, former artist of the National Ballet of Guinea, and drummer Karamba Dambakte, born of a griot family-charged with carrying on the storytelling tradition of the culture-are teaching a workshop October 10-12. Call 549-7933.

• Missoula native and award-winning choreographer Michael Smuin is bringing his San Francisco-based company on October 12 and 13.

• "Performance as Healing: Celebrating Life with Korean Music," the keynote performance of the 1998 Mansfield Conference on the Healing Arts, features dance, music and storytelling put together by Chan E. Park, a professor of Korean language and literature at Ohio State University on October 20. Call 243-2988.

• Leslie Browne, co-star with ballet great Mikhail Baryshnikov in the famous film The Turning Point and a principal dancer in American Ballet Theater, is teaching classes at the newly established Rocky Mountain Ballet Theater School on October 23 and 24. Call 549-5155.

• WOFA, seven musicians and three dancers from the Soussou ethnic group of Guinea, West Africa, sponsored by UM Productions, are performing at the Wilma on October 27 as a part of their first American tour.

Dancers in Amy Ragsdale's modern dance class learn new moves. Photo by Lise Thompson

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