The Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts kicks off its 2018-19 season this weekend, ushering in a robust lineup of programming—most of which will be new for Philadelphia audiences.
“This is a season rich with new work and artists for Philadelphia,” says Christopher Gruits, Annenberg’s executive and artistic director. “We’re trying to focus on contemporary work—new work people in Philadelphia can’t see otherwise.”
Gruits explains there are three notable themes to the upcoming season, from dance to the human experience of migration and Colonial America. The season gets underway with the U.S. premiere of “Humans,” an exploration of what it means to be human, performed by Australian acrobatics group Circa on Sept. 28-29. Annenberg will continue to bring dance to the Center through a partnership with Philadelphia-based organization NextMove Dance, welcoming 11 dance companies to perform this year—making it one of Annenberg’s biggest dance seasons ever.
“[NextMove] was at Annenberg for 32 years, and recently left, and now has come back—founded by Penn alum Randy Swartz,” Gruits says. “That’s a great ‘returning home’ story.”
Moreover, Annenberg will adopt a theme of “The Philadelphians,” looking at migrations that made the city what it is. Historically, that means focusing on the forced migration of Africans during the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the migration of European colonists. One event tied to the enslavement of Africans is “Vessels,” a world-premiere musical in which seven women use movement and music to explore sounds of the Middle Passage—all happening around sculpted ships.
A performance covering European migration, meanwhile, is “The English Concert,” an opera that performs the music of Colonial-era composer George Handel.
“Handel is someone who, in Philadelphia, they would have been sending away for sheet music,” says Gruits.
“Benjamin Franklin was at one of Handel’s last public performances in London—even though he didn’t seem to like Handel very much,” Gruits adds, laughing. “But we’re looking at music that Colonial Europeans would have been getting access to, or been knowledgeable of, because Philadelphia was a growing, Colonial outpost and, because of the tolerance of Quakers, there was a lot of music happening.”
Tied to that Colonial theme, Annenberg will co-sponsor a pop-up exhibit with Penn Libraries that displays early sheet music in Colonial Philadelphia, and develop a recital program with Penn Music to activate that collection.
The third theme of the season is linked to the Center’s partnership with Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH), which will perform in March. That program will include a new piece by Robert Garland, a Philadelphia native.
DTH will, as part of the partnership, be involved with the West Philadelphia community by hosting a workshop. A Q&A and meet-and-greet event will also be hosted with Garland.
In total, the new season amounts to four world premieres, one U.S. premiere, and 24 Philadelphia premieres.
Beyond the referenced performances, there is a children's holiday-themed performance in December of “The Snow Queen,” brought to life by Enchantment Theatre Company using puppets and music. For beer and theater enthusiasts, “Two Pints” is a two-man pub and talk-oriented show that takes place at the Blarney Stone in February and March. And Emmet Cohen, a pianist from Harlem, bookends the season in May with a jazz-filled set of music performed alongside a trio that includes “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” bassist Russell Hall.
Gruits emphasizes that the season is meant to balance performances of interest to both the Penn community and the larger Philadelphia region, presenting innovative contemporary programming to the University.
“We’re bringing so many disciplines that wouldn’t otherwise be in Philadelphia,” he says.
Students can nab tickets to any show for $10; faculty and staff, meanwhile, receive a 20 percent discount with a PennCard.