Sunday, January 4, 2004

Risk takers

Here are nine people who took risks in arts and entertainment in 2003. These people set the pace. They brought new energy to the cultural scene. It paid off for the community in a big way, and now we look to them to push the envelope even further in 2004.

Marvel Gentry Davis: ballet tech ohio

Since Marvel Gentry Davis was elected president of the board of ballet tech ohio performing arts association in 2001, her inspiration and leadership have thrust her organization into the spotlight.

Working closely with ballet tech artistic director Claudia Rudolf Barrett, she produces all of the nonprofit's performances, including marketing and public relations, event promotion, fund raising, management and business operations.

In August, the second annual Gala of International Ballet Stars at the Aronoff Center delivered the best dancers, best companies and best choreography in a high-voltage performance.

Last May, ballet tech ohio presented Coppelia, combining professionals and pre-professionals.

Davis is the force behind ballet tech's community outreach, too. In February, guest company Complexions will perform. Ballet tech will help celebrate the opening of the Underground Railroad Freedom Center. In the fall, it will present the renowned Bale Folclorico de Bahia.

Davis says she volunteers "to make a difference in our community, and to bring people together with the common language of dance."

Kathy Valin

Bill Donabedian and Sean Rhiney: MidPoint Music Festival

Multiband local rock events are nothing new here, but MidPoint Music Festival took the concept to a new level. It was bigger and better in 2003, its second year - more bands, more venues and a focus on Cincinnati's Main Street, making it easier for fans and industry folk to see more music.

Starting MidPoint was gamble enough, but making it bigger in 2003, despite 2002's rained-out opening night, was loaded with risky business.

"We could have really bit the bullet from a financial standpoint, but that never entered into the equation for us," says MidPoint co-founder Sean Rhiney, a lawyer and rock bassist.

He and his partner, MidPoint president Bill Donabedian (an instructional designer and drummer), not only organized musicians, volunteers and venues, but they also got the backing of Cincinnati City Council and area and national sponsors, a first for a local, original music event.

"Great music is great business," Donabedian says. "There doesn't have to be a divide. Great art will bring great business, and the festival, I think, proved that. Original, local music is the soundtrack of our city and an asset to be leveraged."

MidPoint 2004 will be Sept. 22-25 and will return to Main Street. The tentative slogan is "Where the buzz begins," with more than 150 bands in all genres. And with MidPoint's buzz getting louder, Donabedian expects bigger crowds. "I don't know if we're going to double it again," he says. "But I see attendance definitely going up."

Larry Nager

Jason Bruffy: The Fringe Festival

Jason Bruffy, 26, is masterminding the first-ever Cincinnati Fringe Festival, which will erupt all over downtown in mid-May. The Atlantic City native came to Cincinnati as part of Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival's first Young Company, stuck around to become company manager (among other duties) and started plotting for a fringe fest to stage alternative performance more than a year ago. Cincinnati Shakespeare gave him the go-ahead and gave him a new title, "Fringe Festival producing director."

The time is now, he says, because "Cincinnati has a growing underground arts scene that needs this kind of exposure." Bruffy senses a surge of energy in the young arts scene, a will to "do something or move on."

The "risk" here isn't financial, he says. The festival isn't taking on the burden of producing work, and Bruffy promises "the cheapest seats in town." No, the risk "that keeps me up some nights" is what kind of work shows up - artists come with the best work they have, but one of the great joys of the experimental is that it is experimental.

Also causing some loss of sleep - "whether Cincinnati will take notice." And whether a successful Fringe will give Cincinnati's young talent a reason to stay.

Jackie Demaline

Peter Gomsak Jr.: Tall Stacks

Tall Stacks was a world-class roots music festival, and the area's biggest musical event of 2003, but the reinvention of the city's steamboat fest was no sure thing.

"We were wrestling 31/2 years before the event, whether or not to do it again," says Peter Gomsak Jr., president of the Tall Stacks Commission.

Tall Stacks 1999 had been a modest success, but after doing it every four years since 1988, the commission had decided Tall Stacks had gotten tired.

"We made two decisions," Gomsak explains. "One, that we would turn the production of the event over - more than it had ever been before - to professionals. The other, that we would broaden it more than it had ever been to attract a wider audience, particularly younger people."

They renamed it the Tall Stacks Music, Arts & Heritage Festival and hired the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's new Music and Event Management Inc., led by seasoned professional Mike Smith. Smith booked Emmylou Harris, B.B. King, Los Lobos, Ricky Skaggs and dozens more big-name acts. The Oct. 15-19 fest drew an unprecedented 800,000, almost half of them first-time Tall Stackers, according to exit surveys.

In the face of risky October weather, a slumping economy and an on-again-off-again entertainment boycott, the plans took considerable courage.

A Tall Stacks music festival (minus boats) has been proposed for this year. Gomsak says nothing's definite, but "the door is very wide open."

Larry Nager

Hector Moreno: Latin entertainment

Hector Moreno, a scientist with the U.S. Enviornmental Protection Agency and Puerto Rican native, was going on gut instinct when he and some friends launched Cincy Latino to bring more Latin-themed entertainment to the Cincinnati area.

His instincts proved right this year, as enthusiastic partygoers flocked to the riverfront for several Salsa Cruises and hundreds of movie fans turned out for Cine Arte films at the Madison Theater in Covington - all with with plenty of music and food to ensure a proper party atmosphere.

In 2004, more films, more cruises, and new events are in the works. Keep track of the progress at

Margaret A. McGurk

Paavo Jarvi: Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra

Classical music is badly in need of heroes, and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra has one: Paavo Jarvi.

The chemistry between Jarvi and the orchestra is creating some of the most exciting performances heard here since the Thomas Schippers era in the '70s. The Cincinnati Symphony is turning heads of critics around the world.

Jarvi is waking up this sleeping beauty, but he faces big challenges ahead. Despite huge crowds on his first East Coast and Japan tours this year, the hometown crowd hasn't discovered how great the orchestra sounds.

The orchestra negotiates musician contracts in September. Times are tough, but the orchestra predicts even worse financial times ahead, which could result in major changes for the first time in its 109-year history.

Can Jarvi keep the quality high - and overcome those daunting hurdles?

Janelle Gelfand

Carl Solway: Visual arts

With his gallery in its 42nd year, Carl Solway, 68, continues to break new ground in Cincinnati's visual arts community. He has doubled the size of his exhibition space on Findlay Street in the West End. He has renewed his active exhibition program and added a 70-car parking lot next to his gallery. He also has hired Ruth Meyer as senior curator. (Among many other positions, Meyer was director of the Taft Museum of Art.)

Solway brings great art and is never afraid to be the first and only one on his block.

Marilyn Bauer

Ed Stern: Playhouse in the Park

Don't underestimate some middle-aged white guys' taste for risk. The theater that has always taken the biggest risks on the local scene is Playhouse in the Park, never more so than in 2003.

There is the cutting-edge winter series alteractive that introduces national performance artists - a lot of them controversial - to Cincinnati (the 2004 lineup will be announced Thursday).

The theater rode a tsunami of acrimony late last winter when it commissioned a school touring play about the West Bank conflict (the tour was canceled).

In a difficult economy, producing artistic director Ed Stern scheduled three world premieres in this season (in an era and a town where the majority of people are most willing to pay to see what they've seen before).

One of the choices, Hiding Behind Comets, ended the 15-year support of Playhouse's annual new play prize by philanthropists Lois and Richard Rosenthal.

Both The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer and Metamorphoses expanded the definition of theater in Cincinnati, where venturing from the safe mainstream of American naturalism is a rare undertaking indeed.

For 2004, the risks will continue, although Stern points out "(producing) art is inherently risky." Stern says he isn't interested in shocking people; he picks projects because he believes in them.

March should be a big month for Playhouse, with the debut of Comets and the announcement of the 2004-05 season, which may contain a little experiment "just to see if we can do it," Stern says with a laugh.

Jackie Demaline

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