Best of Baltimore


The best dance companies, exhibitions and more

Arrangements: Peabody Jazz Alumni

Gary Thomas has been director of Peabody’s jazz department for 10 years now, leading his students in the Peabody Improvisation and Multimedia Ensemble (PIME). In May, various PIME alums returned to perform new arrangements of Thomas’s compositions, and the results were revelatory. The director’s work can be knotty and difficult, but former students like saxophonists Russell Kirk and Jacob Yoffee opened it up, underscored its melodicism, and gave it a big-band sheen. “They made my music sound like music,” a smiling Thomas told the audience. They also showed that jazz can evolve in a conservatory setting.

Art Sale: Baltimore Contemporary Print Fair

This year’s Baltimore Contemporary Print Fair at The BMA in April was hopping. The number of vendors practically doubled, filling the upstairs galleries with eye-popping art, much of it extremely affordable. The likes of Jim Kempner and Harlan & Weaver from New York kept the quality high, and visiting artist Trenton Doyle Hancock created a buzz with a collaborative MICA print and jam-packed artist talk prior to opening night. Whether you were buying or browsing, the Print Fair was an infectious draw for art lovers of all ages.

Boutique Publisher: Babetta’s World

It’s hard enough to be a book publisher these days, so it’s especially gratifying when a company puts passion over profits. Monica Lapenta is passionate about opera and wanted to spark similar excitement in children, so she wrote a series of opera-centric kids’ books, had them lavishly illustrated, and published them under her Babetta’s World imprint, which is based in Baltimore. Her gorgeous books summarize classic operas such as The Nutcracker and La Bohème in English, Italian, and the native tongue of the librettist, making them accessible to a diverse array of youngsters. If Lapenta had her way, Madama Butterfly would be the next Katniss.

Children’s Book Writer: Natalie Standiford

Baltimore native Natalie Standiford wrote a fantastic young-adult novel, How to Say Goodbye in Robot, in 2009 and penned an equally impressive book for middle schoolers, The Secret Tree, this year. Both books are set in and around her hometown and feature beautifully crafted, nuanced characters that aren’t wizards or vampires. The protagonist of the latter book is a 10-year-old roller derby aficionado named Minty Mortimer who lives in Catonsville. Need we say more?

Comeback: Ian Hesford

Telesma’s Ian Hesford didn’t just make an artistic comeback, he literally came back from the dead. During the band’s first song at an April 20 Rams Head Live! show, the 38-year-old didgeridoo player suffered a massive heart attack (the result of an undiagnosed heart condition). Luckily for him, the audience included a CPR instructor and an emergency-room nurse, and they gave him CPR until an ambulance arrived and took him to Mercy Medical Center. Eight defibrillations and 90 minutes later, Hesford’s heart still hadn’t restarted, but the doctor in attendance tried one more time——and it worked. According to bandmate Chris Mandra, his heartbeat “came galloping back.” Three weeks later, the band’s new disc of psychedelia, Action In Inaction, was released, and, within days, Hesford was released from the hospital.

Creative Hub: Creative Alliance at the Patterson

The anchor of the Highlandtown Arts and Entertainment district, the Creative Alliance at the Patterson has long been a hub of artisticendeavor. Where else could you learn African textile techniques, screen work-in-progress films, take a drawing class, study Spanish, celebrate World Refugee Day, view an exhibit of photos taken by Baltimore teens, and check out a traditional Irish band——all in the same week! Now, you can add food by Clementine and an elegant watering hole, the Marquee Lounge, to that heady mix.

Cultural Ambassadors: Beach House

Though they certainly didn’t set out to become ambassadors for the city, the band Beach House puts Baltimore in a positive light, nationally and internationally, with the piles of press generated by each album and concert tour. Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally champion their hometown in a low-key, unassuming manner that exudes integrity and leads by example. They are local treasures that hope to remain local. Even though the band isn’t making noises about leaving, city leaders should nonetheless take note and find ways to ensure they stay in Baltimore. It might be the art-scene equivalent of re-signing Ray Rice.

Dance Company: Effervescent Collective

Effervescent Collective has the moxie to stage what it calls “dance-based wonders” and the irrepressible talent to actually pull off such events. Founded by Goucher grad Lily Susskind, Effervescent bridges the city’s burgeoning DIY performance and music scenes with collaborations as inclusive as they are kinetic. You might see Susskind and crew at the Theatre Project, the High Zero Festival, a Baltimore Rock Opera Society show, the Transmodern Festival, or performances with the likes of Dan Deacon and Dustin Wong.

Distribution Method: Art-o-mat

Thanks to Art-o-mat, you can collect art with the same budget you might use for collecting baseball cards. The brainchild of MICA grad Clark Whittington, it dispenses artworks via vending machine for $5 a pop at locations like MICA’s Fox Building and the National Portrait Gallery in D.C. The machines are stocked with boxes the size of cigarette packs containing photos, paintings, jewelry, books, or prints from hundreds of different artists. Warning: Art-o-mat can be addictive, but the Surgeon General approves.

Documentary: Cafeteria Man

Cafeteria Man, Richard Chisolm and Sheila Kinkade’s engaging film about school food reformer Tony Geraci, premiered at last year’s Maryland Film Festival and was featured at the Silverdocs Documentary Festival in Silver Spring. Since then, it’s been popular on the film-festival circuit and has been a hit at conferences and symposia dealing with nutrition and food issues. Although Geraci’s two-year effort at greening city school cafeterias yielded mixed results, the film succeeds by using his magnetic personality to draw much-needed attention to a problem worth solving.

Exhibition: Open Walls Baltimore

The best art show of the year went up on walls around Station North over the spring. Curated by local street artist Gaia and funded by PNC and the NEA, Open Walls Baltimore featured the work of nearly two-dozen artists——who came from around the world, around the country, and around the corner——to create a public-art spectacle throughout Barclay, Greenmount West, and Charles North. Besides drawing attention to the arts district, it also brought visitors to these neighborhoods and created an online buzz. (See sidebar for more on Open Walls.)

Homage: Shodekeh’s Meredith Monk Remix

It’s darn near impossible to reinterpret material from a musical icon without diluting the original’s vitality or tampering with some key component of the artist’s vision. But local beatboxer Shodekeh effectively re-imagined Meredith Monk’s classic “Dolmen Music” as a hip-hop instrumental by enhancing it with a battery of rhythmic flourishes. Monk’s original displayed plenty of depth but not much drive, while the Shodekeh track, featured on Monk Mix, favored solid beats over the drift of abstraction. It exuded mystery, even as it flexed newfound might, and proved to be the highlight of a collection that also featured Bjork and DJ Spooky.

Legacy: Gary Vikan

We’re incredibly fortunate to have visionary leaders at the helm of our biggest arts institutions. Names like Fred, Doreen, Rebecca, and Marin ring with fond familiarity, and when Gary (Vikan) announced in March that he was leaving The Walters, it felt like a major loss. Vikan transformed the museum, making it more community-minded and audience-friendly, without straying from the basic mission of sharing its magnificent collections. He expanded, partnered, renovated, initiated, and boosted with the best of them. And when the economy soured, he stepped up and led a grassroots effort to garner public support for stable arts funding. Vikan shepherded the Walters into the 21st century, championing change and providing stability, an institutional mindset that could prove to be his greatest legacy.

Man About Town: Tom Hall

Celebrating his 31st year as artistic director of Baltimore Choral Arts, Tom Hall shows no sign of slowing down——in fact, he seems more energetic and, thanks to his role as arts and culture editor for WYPR’s Maryland Morning, more ubiquitous than ever. And that’s most welcome, because he’s such an insightful and all-around talented guy. We have no idea how he also fits mentoring, teaching, emceeing events, and serving on boards into his jam-packed schedule.

MVP: Dan Trahey

When the BSO launched OrchKids in 2008, the notion of initiating an after-school music program in an underserved city school was hailed as a great idea. But someone had to execute the plan and see to day-to-day operations, and Dan Trahey is that person. A Midwesterner who plays a mean tuba, Trahey runs the program with the passion of a grassroots activist, the sensitivity of an educator, and the audacity of a true believer. And he had a hand in two of the best concerts of the year: the collaboration between OrchKids, Peabody, City Neighbors, School for the Arts, New Song Academy, and London’s Guildhall School in March and a spirited show with his band, the Archipelago Project, in the halls of Mary Ann Winterling Elementary School in May.

Photographer: Alexander Heilner

At first glance, Alexander Heilner’s photographs could be mistaken for abstract paintings. Look closer and you’ll see the effect comes from an aerial perspective and a keen eye for geometric composition. High above places like Houston, Las Vegas, and Dubai, Heilner, a 2012 Baker Artist Awards winner, finds beauty in loops of highway, clusters of housing developments, and the borders between built environments and the natural world.

Play: The Brothers Size

Everyman Theatre’s production of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brothers Size was one of the most compelling plays in recent memory. It was intimate (in the round), immersive (Chas Marsh’s sound design was particularly noteworthy), and dynamic (choreographer Vincent Thomas coached the actors on movement). Some Everyman regulars might have been taken aback by its coarse language and overt male sexuality, but McCraney’s writing, Derek Goldman’s snappy direction, and uniformly strong acting made for a transcendent show.

Record Label: Friends Records

Baltimore’s burgeoning indie music scene has produced tons of great bands and an excellent record label, Friends. Founded by a pair of music geeks, Brett Yale (of the Bmore Music blog) and Jimmy MacMillan (who works at The Sound Garden), Friends puts out albums and 45s (vinyl releases with digital downloads) and cassettes (also with downloads) by local luminaries like Jenn Wasner’s Flock of Dimes, Celebration, Oxes, and Secret Mountains. It’s an impressive catalogue and important archive of a vital part of this city’s cultural scene.

Residency: Whoop Dee Doo at MICA

Many artists-in-residence hunker down at their host institutions and don’t interact with the outside world. But when MICA grad students brought Kansas City-based performance group Whoop Dee Doo (WDD) to Baltimore, they expected community engagement, and that’s what they got. Over the course of two weeks in the spring, WDD’s Jamie Warren and Matt Roche transformed City Arts Gallery into a stage set that would make Pee-Wee blush and scouted local talent for an insanely fun variety show that included the Police Department’s honor guard, Prem Raja Majat (known around town as the Nepalese Elvis), polka dancers, wrestlers, and Miss Baltimore. WDD pretty much set the bar for future residencies.

Theater Experience: Centerstage

Soon after Kwame Kwei-Armah took over as Centerstage’s artistic director, he changed the theater’s tagline to “Welcome to the Conversation” and said he wanted the building to become “a focal point for art as a catalyst for debate.” Well, it didn’t take long to manifest exactly that, and, by April, the place had the feel of a mini-Lincoln Center with a buzzing lobby and excellent productions of Sondheim’s Into the Woods (in the Pearlstone Theater) and Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man (directed by Kwei-Armah in the Head Theater) running concurrently for a few weeks. The energy was so palpable that ushers had to hush the Whipping Man audience exiting the theater, while the Sondheim play was still in progress. The conversation was getting loud.

Venue: Patricia and Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric

When the Lyric reopened last year after extensive renovations, it didn’t seem like the city needed a swank venue in addition to the Hippodrome. But the Lyric’s diverse bookings have silenced the doubters, with the likes of Fiona Apple, Alvin Ailey, and John Waters taking the stage, in addition to the touring musicals and operas.