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Carolina Performing Arts' Commons Festival gives a digital platform to local artists

For those looking for artistic inspiration to propel them into the new year, Carolina Performing Arts is hosting a brand-new event showcasing established and upcoming local artists.

Over the next four weekends, from Jan. 29 to Feb. 20, CPA's Commons Festival will be livestreaming prerecorded performances from four carefully selected local artists — the Commons’ “artists in residency” — who rose to the top in the festival’s application process to secure their spots in the program.

Founded by CPA in 2019, the Commons Festival was created to support artists and foster local creative communities and discourse across the Triangle. Originally an in-person event, the festival has transitioned to a virtual platform this year.

Provided with a stipend, studio time, an artistic team and production support, the four local artists have spent ample time preparing their pieces with members of the CPA team, like program director Christopher Massenburg.

“I think it’s really an opportunity for artists to be able to deepen their relationship with the local arts community,” Massenburg said. “It’s also an opportunity to put some resources into supporting some new work from artists in this area.”

The four featured artists for the 2021 Commons Festival represent a wide variety of art forms, ranging from dance to rap to spoken word poetry. On top of this, Massenburg said the artists are representing topics that have become increasingly important to American society.

“The subject matter that they're dealing with at this time, and for all four of these artists to be young Black artists and to be given a platform for them to speak to the kinds of things they're speaking to, I think is a really powerful thing,” he said.

The first featured artist is Anthony “Ay-Jaye” Nelson, who will be performing his original solo dance piece, "Pain, Trauma, Triumph." The piece encourages the audience to reckon with their complex emotions and life experiences.

Following Nelson will be spoken word poet Ayanna Albertson, rapper Eternal the M.C. and interdisciplinary artist Johnny Lee Chapman III. 

Christina Rodriguez, the associate director of marketing and communications at CPA, has noticed several perks and drawbacks to hosting virtual performances.

“I think that there's always some level of magic with live performance, and that's not going to be quite the same in a virtual setting,” Rodriguez said. “But I have had so many experiences during this pandemic where I've watched a performance through my computer screen and I’ve still been incredibly moved.”

To replicate the live experience as much as possible, Rodriguez said the festival's team is trying to create a community of audience members online. 

“We can do that through even the chat function on our YouTube channel,” Rodriguez said. “It allows us to engage in real time with our audience in ways that we wouldn't really be able to do if we were just sitting in the audience with them.”

Massenburg also sees new opportunities in the virtual setting.

“Working digitally has been a challenge and an opportunity,” he said. “It did give us an opportunity to play with some new ways to present the works, and the artists and the videographer were really able to collaborate on the look and feel of things.”

Anyone is welcome to register for the performances for free at The pieces will stream at 7 p.m. every Friday, followed by a Q&A with the respective artist.

On Saturdays at 1 p.m, CPA will host post-performance “Shop Talks,” which are small roundtable chats facilitated by arts professionals and representatives from groups like Martha Graham Dance Company and Durham Performing Arts Center. 

“In many ways, I think that there’s something there for everyone,” Rodriguez said. “They're also all emerging artists, and to watch an emerging artist’s performance can be a really exciting thing.”


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