By Laura McAlister
When UAB’s Alys Robinson Stephens Performing Arts Center opened in 1996, the goals were to bring diverse performing arts to the city of Birmingham and to develop a full-scale education center for the arts.
A decade and a half later, it’s achieved that and so much more.
This year the Alys Stephens Center will celebrate its 15th anniversary. A community birthday bash will kick off the festivities followed by the start of what’s sure to be one of the center’s best seasons yet, said Jessica Simpson, ASC program director.
“We’re so excited to be entering our 15th year,” she said. “The theme of the year is ‘Flirting with Boundaries.’
“We wanted to explore what it means to present arts as well as the spaces of the center. We’re going to be doing a lot of innovative things with those spaces.”
Thanks to support from UAB and the community, the nonprofit center has offered unique performances to the area. A typical season used to be about 10 shows a year. This year the center will present about 50 performances.
“Over the past 14 years, the support the Alys Stephens Center has received from the corporate community, subscribers, donors, UAB community and Birmingham region at large has been incredible and inspiring,” said Theresa Bruno, chairman of the center’s corporate board. “Key visionaries championing the way for the ASC have been UAB President Dr. Carol Garrison; Dr. Shirley Kahn, UAB’s vice president for external affairs; and Jane Stephens Comer, board member and founding donor of ArtPlay, the ASC’s arts education and outreach program.”
To thank the community for its support, the ASC season will start with a community-wide anniversary celebration, “inter-ART-ive,” at 6 p.m. Sept. 15 at the Alys Stephens Center’s outdoor Engel Plaza and Courtyard.
The event is free. In addition to performances from UAB’s Marching Blazers drum line and steel drum band, New Orleans’ Big Sam’s Funky Nation will perform.
Big Sam’s is led by Sam Williams, formerly of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. The urban funk band has performed in two European tours and has recurring roles on HBO’s “Treme.”
The public won’t take a backseat role in this anniversary celebration. Jessica said the event will include a community art project. There also will be a craft beer tasting and signature celebration cupcakes created by Dreamcakes.
“We want people to come paint the birthday mural,” she said. “There’s really going to be a lot going on. This officially opens our season. It’s going to be great, and it’s free to everyone.”
Shortly after the celebration bash, the new season begins. One of the highlights this year starts Sept. 19, when Project Bandaloop will have a weeklong residency at the center. This delightfully different dance troupe is sure to make interesting use of space there.
The company, headquartered in California, is what founder and creative director Amelia Rudolph likes to call a “vertical dance” troupe.
“We’re not acrobats or circus performers,” she said. “But what we do is different from traditional dance. We truly dance on a vertical stage. Our dance floor is sideways.”
In most cases, the group’s dance floor is the side of a building. In fact, in its 20 years, the troupe has performed on more than 50 building fronts and historic sites around the world. The dancers perform indoors, too, but still use harnesses to create their vertical experience.
Amelia describes the performances as a combination of rock climbing and dance. She said she’s looking forward the troupe’s week at the center, which ends Sept. 23 with an outdoor and indoor performance.
The troupe will dance on the outdoor brick walls of the Alys Stephens Center and will also host workshops and open rehearsals throughout the week.
“We do often hold open rehearsals so people can see,” Amelia said. “Every time we have a performance, we have to adapt our repertoire to the space, so we’ll be adapting our performance.
“We’re also going to host a workshop. The center will choose who participates. First and foremost we teach safety. Then we’ll have people learning the equipment and basic technique.”
Amelia said the Sept. 23 performance will start outside and should offer a unique experience for viewers. A pre-party outdoors starts at 6:30 p.m. followed by the outdoor performance at 7:30 p.m. After a brief intermission, the crowd will move indoors to the Jemison Concert Hall.
“Sometimes when we perform we’re on huge skyscrapers,” Amelia said. “So in reality, you can’t really see the dancers’ faces. We’re excited that (at the Alys Stephens Center) the audience will get an up close, personal view of the dancers.”
Project Bandaloop is just one of many distinctive performances coming to the center this year. Others include Patty Griffith with musical guest Buddy Miller, Cyndi Lauper, Common Threads featuring the quilters of Gee’s Bend and a holiday comedy show featuring Mo Rocca.
The season also will include performances from the center’s new education center, ArtPlay.
ArtPlay, which opened in January, helped fulfill the center’s goal of being not only a performance arts center but an arts education program. Housed in an old Victorian house in Southside, ArtPlay offers art classes in all mediums to both children and adults.
“You don’t have to be an artist to take classes,” Jessica said. “The whole philosophy is about unleashing people’s creativity, about the arts in our lives and how you can produce art even if you’re not an artist.”
Thanks to educational programs like ArtPlay, Jessica said, ASC leaders hope to continue to grow the center in the years ahead as well as the art community in the Birmingham area.
For more information on the Alys Stephens Center’s 15th season, visit alysstephens.uab.edu.