Behind the Scenes at the Washington National Opera’s Costume Facility

WNO Costume Director Marsha LeBoeuf walked us through her vast costume shop in Takoma. Inside the building, there’s a wig-making studio and a fabric-dying room and walls lined with every brightly colored shoe imaginable, not to mention never-ending rows of textures organized by production and drawers upon drawers of tiaras and pearls and other costumed jewels. Read the entire story here. Photos: Rich Kessler

All Things Go Fall Classic at Union Market

On October 12-13, All Things Go Fall Classic returned to Union Market for its sixth year. Featuring headliners Chvrches and Melanie Martinez, fest goers jammed out to big names currently trending in music. Vendors and bars provided a taste of DC and appetizing cocktails and drinks. There was more to explore with original activations including art features and photo ops.  Photos: K. Gabrielle Photography

The Black Keys, Modest Mouse and Jessy Wilson at The Anthem

When a band like The Black Keys plays The Anthem, it raises the question: Could we see the end of arena shows? And would that be better for rock music? It was a fitting query during their set on October 12, which fell on the second anniversary of the waterfront mega-venue’s opening. Read all of Jackson Sinnenberg’s review here. Photos: Kimchi Photography

Photos: Kimchi Photography

The Black Keys Adapt Sound for Let’s Rock Tour

When a band like The Black Keys plays The Anthem, it raises the question: Could we see the end of arena shows? And would that be better for rock music? It was a fitting query during their set on October 12, which fell on the second anniversary of the waterfront mega-venue’s opening. 

To catch everyone up to speed, The Black Keys are a rock band – formed by guitarist/vocalist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney – that rose from the rust belt and rubber factory landscape of Akron, Ohio in the early 2000s as part of that era’s garage rock revival (The White Stripes were the most prominent flag-bearers). The duo’s first records drew on vintage sources and familiar soundscapes to color their raw, early records: sneering electric blues, fuzzy psychedelia, rubber-burning, hot-rod worthy rock n’ roll, and a sense of earworm melody and warmth derived from Motown soul. The group best packaged that sound for a wider audience on the 2010 release Brothers and have since expanded that formula to a more arena/classic rock breadth on their most recent three releases.

The Black Keys’ new album, Let’s Rock, is something of a “back-to-basics” record for the band, cutting out the added expanse of keyboards from their last record and producing it themselves. The current live show (which appears again at The Anthem tonight) holds a kind of similar ethos, attempting to balance stadium swell and rock club sweaty rave. In an arena, like Capitol One, the Keys are somewhat lost by the sheer distance, size and design of the space. But in a venue like The Anthem, their lies a possibility for the band to have the best of both worlds. 

Attendees of most-large scale concerts will tell you that hearing the music – the nominal ritual that you are partaking in, en masse – is one of the biggest challenges of the night (in addition to seeing your favorite performers, depending on your seats). So, when The Black Keys hit the stage with their five-person live band, the first thing I thought was “this is actually not loud” and that’s in spite of the group’s attempts to ensure greater volume. The Keys have this neat magic trick for playing the in the enormous spaces they do now, an illusion based on sound. Even though there are five musicians on stage – one drummer, one bassist, three guitarists – you are led to believe only Auerbach and Carney are playing. The backing musicians lock in tight with the leading men: guitarists Steve Marion and Andy Gabbard shadow Auerbach, making the one guitar roar with the strength to shake rafters while bassist Zach Gabbard does an intricate dance with Carney’s drums, hitting his bass notes off the bass drum and toms to give the rhythm some subwoofer oomph. The trick works as well for older cuts like “10 A.M. Automatic” or new ones from Let’s Rock like “Walk Across The Water.”

The condensed space – The Anthem holds about 6,000 max, half of most arena crowds – the crystalline, specific details in The Keys’ vintage sound came through like an unearthed vinyl on a turntable. Auerbach’s onslaught on pristine, wizened guitars could attack the airwaves with their full potential, hitting the crowd with a sharp but warm sound that bites like your favorite whiskey. On “Strange Times,” from the group’s 2008 album Attack & Release, Carney and Auerbach’s fingers flew across their instruments in an accelerated blur, leaving behind the distinct smell of burnt rubber from Akron’s Firestone tires.

Watching the sea of (thousands of) faces on the floor of The Anthem was like observing a human body undergoing a reflex test; some songs hit and made the limbs dance, others landed with a thud. The audience churned like a storming sea during the main-set close, one-two punch of “Little Black Submarines” and “Lonely Boy” but chattered through new material like “Eagle Birds” and “Fire Walk With Me.” Even though the songs of Let’s Rock exist in more of a continuation with the Keys’ leaner, earlier sound, why the disconnect? Could that explain why rock music seems to slump on a major cultural level, rarely present in arenas or on the Billboard charts?

This is where a venue like The Anthem comes into play – what if The Black Keys played more like it, cut down on the big visuals, bigger sound, bigger band and played just Auerbach and Carney again? There was so much rich detail in older numbers – like the hot rod rev-up into “Thickfreakness” or the lip-curling snarl of “Howlin’ For You” – that could be heard in this space. Both songs were made when the band didn’t have to stretch their sound into arenas that are acoustic nightmares; what sonic potential do they have revisiting a pared-down yet big enough sound? What if other bands followed suit?

The Black Keys gave a glimpse of that with their opening number “I Got Mine,” another from Attack & Release, where there were no fancy visuals, no projections. Just the start of the duo weaving an illusion it was just the audience and them, as it always was. That was an exhilarating moment.

The Black Keys are set to play another set at The Anthem tonight. For more information visit here.

The Anthem: 901 Wharf St. SW, DC; 202-888-0020; www.theanthemdc.com

Photo: Darian Volkova, courtesy of State Academic Mariinsky Theatre

Review: Mariinsky Ballet’s Paquita at the Kennedy Center

A young girl and her father are sitting across from me on the shuttle bus to the Kennedy Center. She’s wearing colorful dinosaur tights. I look down at my own tights – black with a small tear threatening to become a hole. The other people on the shuttle are dressed in crisp suits and elegant dresses. We’re all on our way to see the Mariinsky Ballet perform Paquita

I worry that once I step inside the building, I’ll feel even more out of place. The stereotype of the stuffy ballet attendee doesn’t coincide with my thrift store dress or the fast food I ate for dinner. Am I couth enough to see a ballet? Am I couth enough to use the word couth?

I’m not sure how ballet took on this reputation, but Paquita was far from stuffy; it was whimsical, exciting and heartfelt. A storybook narrative that came to life with every twirl of a cape or swish of a skirt. The picturesque painted sets and hanging props served as a beautiful backdrop for the romantic tale of Paquita and Andres.

As a ballet beginner, the playbill proved a great companion. The clear synopsis quelled my fears of confusion. While normally spoilers are unwanted, they were helpful in knowing what’s happening while still being able to focus on the dancers. It also provided history about the production and the Mariinsky Ballet. You don’t have to know the difference between a pirouette and a plie to understand the storyline or appreciate the talent involved. 

Maria Khoreva was stunning as the spirited, strong-willed Paquita. Stolen from nobility at birth, Paquita now lives as a street dancer with a traveling group. She has many adoring suitors, but it is Andres who she asks to prove his love. Andres joins the travelers but finds troubles when the group is accused of theft. The third and final act ends in a grand pas wedding that features lead performers and soloists.   

I found myself being caught off guard by the moments of humor. I genuinely didn’t know that ballet could be so funny. One scene featured two men dancing, perfectly in sync, beneath a horse costume. A third man proceeded to try and ride said horse. The audience was audibly amused. Several times throughout the performance awes and exclamations could be heard throughout the arena. It felt like we were all watching a sporting event together and our team was doing really well. 

Outside of the opera house is a glass case featuring the costumes worn in the show. Every handsewn bead is a reminder of the work put into the show. Every tutu was perfectly fluffed. Every note of the orchestra, lead by Gavriel Heine, was at the exact right moment. The amount of syncretization that goes into the production is unfathomable to me – I can’t even get all of my friends to show up for lunch at the same time. Yuri Smekalov managed to create a nearly three-hour dance routine that never became dull or tedious.   

You can wear an expensive suit or dinosaur tights and it doesn’t matter because ballet is a form of escapism. Who doesn’t want to enter a world where all conflict is fought through dance and everything ends with a big wedding? There is a reason why the Mariinsky Ballet has been putting on performances since the 18th century, and it has nothing to do with the disposition of the audience. It’s the combination of beauty, passion and skill that makes going to the ballet a timeless event. 

The Mariinsky Ballet’s Paquita is being performed at the Kennedy Center through October 13. For information on tickets and showtimes, visit here.

Kennedy Center: 2700 F Street, NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org 

Photo: courtesy of the Kennedy Center

A Footloose Conversation with Isabelle McCalla

The movie Footloose evokes memories of a young Kevin Bacon angrily dancing next to that iconic yellow Volkswagen Bug. Maybe you think of the popular Kenny Loggins’ song of the same name? The music, clothing and cinematography all scream 1980s. So why is this story continually rewatched and remade? After speaking with Broadway Center Stage: Footloose star Isabelle McCalla, it’s clear this narrative is still extremely relevant.

The Kennedy Center is bringing Footloose to DC with a star-studded cast. Among them is McCalla, who in addition to playing the role of Ariel in this production, has played Princess Jasmine in Aladdin on Broadway and originated the role of Alyssa on Broadway’s The Prom. Like her character Ariel, McCalla is no stranger to standing up for what she believes in. She and her The Prom co-star, Caitlin Kinnunen, shared the first same-sex kiss in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade history. Before seeing her on stage, read on to learn more about her history with the material, performing in DC and more. 

On Tap: The movie Footloose came out in 1984, the musical was introduced in 1998, and the movie was then remade in 2011, what do you think is so compelling about the story that makes it able to span decades?
Isabelle McCalla: I think it’s really a story of communication, or the lack thereof, and people with different ideologies who don’t see eye-to-eye. It’s a story of people who listen and understand someone who walks in a different pair of shoes. So I think that has transcended and we do it with musical comedy, and that’s what’s so incredible. 

OT: At the very heart of it, Footloose is about young people fighting for what they believe in. This is very relevant today, especially here in DC. Does performing at the nation’s capital have a different impact?
IM: Oh absolutely! We are in a very difficult time in our history where there is a lot of negative rhetoric going on and the people in charge aren’t necessarily representing their constituents. [Footloose] is about a time when the new generation has to do some toe stepping while standing up for what they believe in and it will resonate a lot with the people living in DC today.   

OT: What was your first experience with the film?
IM: I’ve actually never seen it!

OT: Really?
IM: Yeah, I somehow managed to go my entire life without seeing it. It helps keep it fresh for me in the role.

OT: What drew you to the character of Ariel?
IM: I like that she is very intelligent and able to play the various facets of her society. She knows exactly what roles she has to play with which type of people to get by. She has a hunger and thirst for knowledge, and she just wants to get out of her small town and make something of her life. That’s not something that many people in her community aspire to necessarily. That’s been fun to tap into. She’s very dynamic. It’s hard to find roles that are so versatile, in the sense that they can be vulnerable and demure yet so confident and sexy at the same time. Ariel is kinda the whole package there.

OT: Obviously, the narrative focuses on a small town that bans dancing. You originated the role of Alyssa in The Prom, a musical about a small town that shuts down a prom because Alyssa and her girlfriend want to attend. Are there any similarities between Ariel and Alyssa?
IM: There are similarities in that they both have broken relationships with their parents. They love their parents but for some reason or other, Ariel with her father and Alyssa with her mother, their parents have visions for their daughters that don’t line up with their daughters and who those characters actually are. It’s constantly a fight to just be seen for who they are by their parents. 

OT: If music and dancing had been banned from your town, what would you be doing today?
IM: Oh my god. I would have to move towns. I love singing and dancing, but I’d probably be an investigative journalist. That was always a dream of mine. 

While McCalla isn’t sure what’s next, her successful career thus far is an indication of great things to come. See her in Footloose this Wednesday through Monday, October 14. Showtimes vary, tickets $59-$175. For more information, click here.

The Kennedy Center: 2700 F St.NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

Hyatt Centric Acoustic

Photos: Mark Raker Photography

Catfish and the Bottlemen at The Anthem

Photos: K. Gabrielle Photography

The Regrettes at U Street Music Hall

Photos: K. Gabrielle Photography

Tig Notaro // Photo: Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles Times

Bentzen Ball Turns 10: Tig Notaro and Svetlana Legetic Reflect on Longevity, Quality and Openness

Comedy should be unpretentious and approachable, a way for us to connect and find humor in the many facets of the human experience. In theory, a comedy festival should follow suit, creating a safe space for artists to try out new material and collaborate with one another in a welcoming setting. But that isn’t always the case, so Tig Notaro decided to create a festival designed to make comedians feel at home.

She shared her idea with former Brightest Young Things (BYT) contributor Jeff Jetton, who brought it to BYT co-founder and CEO Svetlana Legetic, and the three joined forces to create the DC-based Bentzen Ball. Fast-forward 10 years, and the co-founders are gearing up for the festival’s 10th Anniversary of Comedy & Friendship on October 24-27.

The Bentzen team is proud of their longstanding collaboration, and the consistent, simple ethos driving the festival every year.

“We wanted it to be this perfect toolbox of four days, both for the comedians and the city,” Legetic says. “The only requirements to get booked are: Are you really talented and are you not a jerk? We run it like a comedy camp. Everything’s completely democratic.”

As the driving force behind BYT – a DC- and NYC-based events company, online magazine and most recently, creative agency – Legetic says organizing a comedy festival that is equal parts accessible to audiences and the talent they’re coming to see is critical. She describes Bentzen as “the great equalizer,” where the artists are all treated as peers regardless of who’s headlining or has the most IMDb credits.

“A festival should be the best time for the comedians because they all like each other,” she adds. “They’re friends. Fame doesn’t play a role – just quality and respect in the community.”

Notaro’s own brand of dry, often deadpan humor paired with personal comedy, touching upon vulnerable topics like her experience with breast cancer, seems like a natural fit for the open, community-driven message behind Bentzen. On a recent phone call with the comedian, she tells me that Bentzen has secured itself not as a fleeting or entertainment industry-driven festival, but instead as an event built on having a good time and doing good things with good comedians.

“I think we’ve maintained it and just grown it, but we’re not trying to grow it to be this monster,” Notaro says. “I just want it to always remain positive in every direction – from the size of it to the people who come to the charities we work with to the audience experience. As I’m going through all of this, it’s reminding me of how proud of it I am.”

The tone of her voice fluctuates ever so slightly when she says this, and I know in that moment how much Bentzen means to her. Notaro hails from L.A., where she lives with her wife Stephanie Allynne and twin 3-year-olds Max and Finn, but comes to the District every year for the festival. When I ask, “Why DC?” the response is quite flattering, another nod to our burgeoning performing arts scene.

“I had such a great time in DC [during the DC Comedy Festival years ago]. It seemed like such a fun city and like regardless of where you stand politically, it would be a nice draw for people to want to come out. And I was right.”

She says she can rely on good vibes from our city year in and year out – and on smart audiences to come out and support the comedians.

“[DC is] always so fun, and it’s always a place I know I can come and try something new. There are certain cities where I feel like, ‘Oh, it can be hit-or-miss, or I had a good time last time [but] who knows what’ll happen this time?’ But I feel like DC is a town where I can just go, ‘Yeah, I’ll go have a great time for sure on that stage.’”

Legetic reiterates how smart of a city we are, and how the District’s collective intelligence has in some ways led to Bentzen’s continued success.

“I always say everyone gets the jokes here,” she says. “If you can’t land a joke here, you can’t land it anywhere because people have read everything, heard everything. We’re so in tune with what’s happening around us.”

Another contributing factor to the festival’s popularity, according to Notaro, is the creative team’s clean-slate approach.

“It’s really wide open,” she says. “We go into each year with an openness of, ‘What do these performers want to do? What kind of show do they want to have? Who do they want in the show?’ Everything still falls in place but as it unfolds, that’s always one of the best parts: seeing what direction everything goes in.”

Bentzen offers artists the opportunity to expand their forms of expression, opening doors to unexplored creative outlets and giving access to talented peers playing in the same space.

Legetic says, “It’s very much about the performer and the audience. People trust that it’s going to be good on both sides, and a lot of magical things happen in the process.”

She’s confident in the event’s continued success, and with good reason. Audience numbers grew 40 percent between 2017 and 2018 “because I think people needed it,” Legetic adds. Festival passes often sell out before BYT even announces the lineup. And headlining acts like Maria Bamford, who has been on both Notaro and Legetic’s wish list for years, continue to join the Bentzen family.

“We don’t have a marketing budget or anything like that,” Legetic says. “If the audience didn’t want it, it wouldn’t be growing.”

Bamford opens the festival on October 24, and on October 26, audiences can catch Notaro’s “But Enough About You” at festival mainstay Lincoln Theatre or head over to the Entertainment and Sports Arena – a new addition to the lineup – for the DC Homecoming! show featuring DMV natives like Jay Pharoah, Aparna Nancherla and Judah Friedlander. The list of curated talent continues, and regardless of who you decide to check out, Legetic promises Bentzen won’t disappoint.

“We’re very earnest in our enthusiasm. Even if you’re not sure about something, give it a chance. We’ve never taken anyone astray in 10 years.”

Bentzen Ball’s 10th Anniversary of Comedy & Friendship runs from October 24-27 at Lincoln Theatre, the Entertainment and Sports Arena, and the Kennedy Center’s Millennial Stage. Most tickets range from $25-$40. Proceeds from this year’s Bentzen tickets support José Andrés World Central Kitchen. Learn more at www.brightestyoungthings.com/bentzen-ball-2019.

Follow Tig Notaro on Twitter at @tignotaro and check out www.tignation.com for more information on the comedian. Pro tip: watch “Under A Rock with Tig Notaro” on www.funnyordie.com.