A burst of spring at the Fine Arts Center: Dance, music and acrobatics on tap at UMass in next two weeks

  • The venerable Martha Graham Dance Company comes to the UMass Fine Arts Center on March 25. Photo by Luis Luque

  • The venerable Martha Graham Dance Company comes to the UMass Fine Arts Center March 25. Photo by Luis Luque

  • Acclaimed jazz trumpeter and composer Sean Jones and his quartet hit the Fine Arts Center April 1. Photo by Conrad Louis-Charles

  • The Peking Acrobats bring their gravity-defying demonstrations to the Fine Arts Center on April 6. IAI Presentations/Fine Arts Center

  • The jazz fusion ensemble Snarky Puppy, fresh off their fifth Grammy Award, comes to the UMass Fine Arts Center April 10. Photo by Lorenzo Duaso

  • The jazz fusion ensemble Snarky Puppy, fresh off their fifth Grammy Award, comes to the UMass Fine Arts Center April 10. Photo by Francois Bisi

Staff Writer
Thursday, March 23, 2023

The Fine Arts Center at the University of Massachusetts has continued to rebound from the pandemic with an expanded program this year featuring a range of shows in music, dance, theater and movement.

As spring officially arrives, the schedule is heating up. Here’s a look at four performances — all of which take place at the Frederick C. Tillis Performance Hal — that are on tap over the next few weeks.


Martha Graham Dance Company — There might be no bigger name in the history of American dance then Martha Graham, the modern dancer and choreographer who, almost 100 years ago, formed the New York-based company named after her.

In her lifetime — she died in 1991 at age 96 — Graham earned all manner of honors, from the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the U.S. to the Legion of Honor in France; Time magazine christened her the “Dancer of the Century.”

On March 25 (Saturday) at 8 p.m., the Martha Graham Dance Company comes to the Fine Arts Center to deliver some selections from two of Graham’s memorable works, “Dark Meadow” from 1946 and “Canticle for Innocent Comedians Suite” from 1952.

Also on the program is a preview performance of New York choreographer Annie Rigney’s “Get Up, My Daughter,” which Rigney calls a work that “explores feminine rage, grief, and sisterhood.”

Graham based the sequences of “Dark Meadow,” an extended work, on her love of the rituals of Indigenous peoples of the American Southwest and Mexico; the Mexican composer Carlos Chavez wrote the musical score for the dances.

At the UMass performance, a selection of these dances will be offered in what’s called the “Dark Meadow Suite.”

Graham’s inspiration from “Canticle for Innocent Comedians,” by contrast, came from a 1938 poem by a friend, Ben Belitt, and it featured eight stars from the dance company, each representing a different element of nature.

The production to be presented at UMass, though, is a major reimagining of the work, the company says, with a new jazz-based score, new choreography that “draws upon Graham’s stylistic blueprint,” and principal dancers from diverse backgrounds.

As one reviewer notes, this 21st-century “Canticle” is an “environmental dance-happening” that includes Chinese classical dance, Afro-Caribbean dance, hip hop, rave culture, modern dance and more, all representing the work of multiple choreographers.

That kind of diversity, according to Martha Graham’s artistic director, Janet Eilber, is in keeping with the company’s “new programming vision that showcases masterpieces by Graham alongside newly commissioned works by contemporary artists.”


Sean Jones Quartet — Trumpeter and composer Sean Jones has been piling up the honors for more than two decades. One example: In 2004, after spending just six months with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, the Ohio native was tapped by ensemble leader Wynton Marsalis to become the group’s lead trumpeter, a position he held for the next six years.

Jones has played with the SF JAZZ Collective in California and shared stages with a who’s who of jazz artists including Jimmy Heath, Nancy Wilson, Dianne Reeves and Marcus Miller. Miller, along with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, also chose Jones to join them on a “Tribute to Miles Davis” tour in 2011.

That’s not all: Jones has recorded eight critically lauded records, such as “Live from Jazz at the Bistro,” as a bandleader.

On April 1 at 8 p.m. Jones will bring his quartet — Orrin Evans on piano, Luques Curtis on bass, and Koleby Royston on drums — to the Tillis Performance Hall.

Fittingly enough for the longtime educator — he’s currently chair of jazz at Johns Hopkins University’s Peabody Institute — the show will also cap Jones’ visit to the area for the annual UMass Amherst High School Jazz Festival.


The Peking Acrobats — You might have seen them on “Ellen’s Really Big Show,” “ABC’s Wide World of Sports,” or any number of other U.S. TV programs.

If not, or if you want to see them in person, consider a trip to the Fine Arts Center on April 6 at 7:30 p.m. when The Peking Acrobats take the stage, ready to defy gravity and push the limits of human ability and flexibility.

Since their founding in 1986, the Chinese acrobatic troupe has mixed time-honored Chinese folk music with high-tech special effects and inspiring athletic feats, creating an all-ages show that combines circus-like acrobatics with the pageantry of a Chinese carnival.

One of the troupe’s highlights is constructing a precarious pagoda of chairs to use as a base for their maneuvers. Also on the program is trick cycling, juggling, synchronized tumbling and extended somersaulting.

Company artists have been featured worldwide with symphony orchestras, on numerous television shows, and in Hollywood movies. As the Los Angeles Times has written, “The Peking Acrobats regularly passed from the seemingly impossible to the virtually unbelievable.”


Snarky Puppy — Their name might suggest some wiseass punk or alt-rock group, but Snarky Puppy is anything but that. This broad-based ensemble of top musicians has won five Grammy awards, including one this year, for its instrumental work, which is rooted in jazz but also draws from rock, funk, world music and more.

Started around 2004 by students in the jazz program at the University of North Texas, Snarky Puppy, which comes to UMass April 10 at 7:30 p.m., today draws on the talents of some 20 musicians whose “day jobs” include performing with or producing artists such as Snoop Dog, Erykah Badu, Herbie Hancock, and Stanley Clarke, or playing on their own or with other groups.

Bandleader, bassist and composer Michael League is typically joined onstage by multiple guitarists, keyboardists, and drummers/percussionists, as well as trumpeters, saxophonists, and a bit of flute and violin. All told, about 40 different players have been part of the group at one point.

It might be hard to believe, but League, who today lives in Spain, where he fronts the world music ensemble Bokanté and runs a record label, once told an interviewer he’d started Snarky Puppy at the University of North Texas “because I was so bad. I didn’t place into any of the school ensembles. So Snarky Puppy was my way of getting to play.”

The group’s 2023 Grammy winner for best contemporary instrumental album, “Empire League,” was recorded over eight nights before a live studio audience in Dallas. According to press notes, the album has expanded Snarky Puppy’s sound even further by drawing on hard rock, blues, modern gospel and soul.

Tickets for all these Fine Arts Center shows are available at fac.umass.edu/Online/defualt.aspvailable.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.