The curtain rises again: UMass Fine Arts Center returns to live programming

  • The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company brings its pandemic-influenced project, “Afterwardness,” to the FAC on Oct. 24 and 25. STEPHANIE BERGER PHOTO

  • Acclaimed violinist Jennifer Koh does a solo recital at the FAC Oct. 28 that will include works by Bach and contemporary Asian-American composers. PHOTO BYJÜRGEN FRANK

  • Iconic dancer and choreographer Pearl Primus, seen at age 25, will be remembered with a documentary film and discussion Oct. 14 at Bowker Auditorium. She taught at UMass in the 1980s. American Dance Festival Archives

  • Singer and songwriter Martha Redbone brings her mix of folk, blues and gospel to the FAC on Nov. 9. Photo by Craig Bailey

  • Singer and songwriter Martha Redbone brings her mix of folk, blues and gospel to the FAC on Nov. 9. Photo by Will Maupin

  • Pianist and composer Christian Sands, a Connecticut native who was nominated for a Grammy Award this year for best instrumental song, brings his quartet to the FAC on Nov. 18. Photo by ANNA WEBBER

Staff Writer
Thursday, October 07, 2021

The Fine Arts Center at the University of Massachusetts, like so many arts venues during the pandemic, had to resort to online productions beginning in the early spring of 2020. Planning for the 2020-2021 season, already well into the works, had to be scrapped and reconfigured for remote audiences, FAC Director Jamilla Deria recalls.

But though COVID-19 is still hanging around, the FAC is again staging live performances, with dance, music, theater/circus performances and more on the agenda. One particular highlight this month is a two-day appearance by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, which will present a new work, “Afterwardness,” that itself has been shaped by the pandemic.

A few online presentations are part of the mix for this fall, but the emphasis is on re-engaging live audiences, according to Deria and Michael Sakamoto, the FAC’s associate director of programming. The initial focus is on smaller, more intimate shows, in some cases with limited seating, with some larger events on the docket for late this year and in early 2022.

“The idea has been to kind of ease into the season, both for ourselves and audiences,” Deria said. “We need to be resilient, to work on social distancing when we plan our shows, and to recognize that not everyone is comfortable yet being part of an audience.”

Sakamoto notes that planning for the new season, which began in spring, also had to factor in the uncertainty among artists themselves on whether they’d be touring come fall.

“Not everyone was ready to begin traveling again,” he said. “We anticipate more of a return in 2022 to the kind of programming we’ve had in the past.”

In recognition of COVID, some FAC shows will be by solo performers or small ensembles. For instance, violinist Jennifer Koh, who made her orchestral debut at age 11, will do a solo recital Oct. 28 in Bowker Auditorium featuring Bach masterworks and new commissions by leading Asian-American composers.

Sakamoto says Koh’s “Bach and Beyond” series, in which she traces the history of the solo violin repertoire from Bach’s Six Sonatas and Partitas to the work of 20th- and 21st-century composers, “is really quite extraordinary … it’s kind of a musical dialogue.”

Deria notes that FAC staff also learned much over the past year about presenting virtual shows — 75 events were staged, attracting 26,000 audience members — and they will use that experience in making online presentations a regular part of future seasons. The center is acquiring cameras and other equipment to do simultaneous livestreaming of some in-person shows, she says: “We know virtual shows are here to stay. It’s another way of staying connected to our audiences.”

For now, though, the emphasis is on live events. Here’s a look at some fall highlights.


Celebrating Pearl Primus, Bowker Auditorium, Oct. 14 at 7 p.m. — This tribute is to the celebrated 20th-century dancer and choreographer who was one of the first performers to present African dance to American audiences — and to make the case that it was a vital art form with a rich cultural heritage.

A native of Trinidad, Primus (1919-1994) spent much of her life in New York City but also performed at Jacob’s Pillow in Becket and lived in the Valley in the 1980s, when she taught ethnic studies at UMass.

The presentation includes a screening of the documentary “Pearl Primus, ‘Omowale,’ Child Returned Home” by Northampton historian and photographer Stan Sherer. Afterward there’s a panel discussion including Sherer, dancers Michael Manswell and Kim Bears, dance scholar M’bewe Escobar, and scholars Peggy Schwartz and Murray Schwartz. Former UMass dance professor Paul Dennis will moderate the talk. The event is free, but tickets are required.


Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance CompanyTotman Gymnasium, Oct. 24-25, 7:30 p.m. — The title of dance titan Bill T. Jones’ most recent work, “Afterwardness,” is drawn from a term that Sigmund Freud defined as “a mode of belated understanding or retroactive attribution of sexual or traumatic meaning to earlier events” — essentially, a belated understanding of trauma.

In Jones’ case, it’s a reference to work he and his company developed while coping with the enforced isolation of the pandemic, as well as with the emotional upheaval of high-profile cases of police violence against Black men in 2020 — what Kyle Maude, producing director for the company, calls the “twin pandemics.”

Maude says the company’s dancers were asked to create “sound diaries” about their daily experiences during this time, about “being isolated at home, about trying to dance in their 4’x4’ kitchen, or their roofs or their bed.” The dancers were also assigned solos “from the 40-year history of the company,” Maude said in an email. “And ‘Afterwardness’ started to take form.”

The company began working in person again last fall in the Park Avenue Armory in New York City, with everyone wearing face masks and undergoing regular COVID tests; they debuted the show this spring. At the FAC, the nine dancers in the production will continue to wear masks for most of the performance and will not touch one another, Maude said.

The New York Times calls “Afterwardness” a dance program that’s very much of the moment: ‘It feels genuine, and beyond that, resolute in its unwillingness to paint the wrong snapshot of a time…. Even in more fiery passages, there is a sense of isolation and exhaustion as weary and brave bodies dart in and out of vacant spaces and pathways, delineated by blue and yellow tape on a 55,000-square-foot stage.”

Seating for the FAC shows — just the second presentation of “Afterwardness” — will be limited to 170 people. “It’s a very intimate performance,” Deria says.

Martha Redbone Roots Project, Bowker Auditorium, Nov. 9 at 7:30 p.m. — Redbone, a singer and songwriter who’s part Native American and part Black, is known for “her unique gumbo of folk, blues and gospel” that’s drawn from her Kentucky childhood and the “eclectic grit of pre-gentrified Brooklyn,” as program notes put it. She’ll be backed by a small ensemble.

Christian Sands, Randolph W. Bromery Center for the Arts Concert Hall, Nov. 18 at 7:30 p.m. — Sands, a Connecticut native who’s considered one of the top young jazz pianists and composers around, has also been an artist-in-residence at UMass. With his small ensemble, he’ll play cuts from his most recent album, “Be Water”; one of those compositions, “Be Water II,” was nominated for a 2021 Grammy Award.

For more details on the FAC’s new season, visit umass.edu/Online. Audience members must be fully vaccinated, or show proof of a negative COVID test within the past 72 hours; face masks are also required.

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