Around the State
Mesquite Championship Rodeo
SO YOU MISSED THE BIG-TO-DO rodeos in Fort Worth and Houston this year. It’s okay to admit it. But, lest your Texas citizenship soon be revoked, you’ve still got a chance to hop in the saddle (in a manner of speaking): The Mesquite Championship Rodeo, arguably the world’s most famous weekly rodeo, opens its fiftieth season this month.
The MCR has made Mesquite—an unassuming town that loses most of its entertainment dollars to nearby Dallas—a national stop. And it hasn’t had to resort to strobe lights or George Strait concerts or elaborate midways. Nope, here it’s actually about the cowboys and cowgirls who ride and steer-wrestle and barrel-race every Friday and Saturday night. A strong showing at the MCR is imperative for up-and-comers in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association; with a trip to the Las Vegas national finals on the line, these young bucks don’t hold back. The lighter offerings also draw plenty of crowds: Cowboy poker alleviates some of the arena’s intensity, for one (last person sitting at the table after a Mexican fighting bull is released wins the $400 pot), and kids get their own time in the dirt during the calf scramble and the mutton bustin’ (that’s sheep riding, for all you city slickers).
Unlike its larger counterparts, the MCR hasn’t always been a stepping-stone on the circuit. In fact, in 1958, when Neal Gay and five of his buddies decided to launch a rodeo that stayed put—not, in other words, a traveling tour—few thought it would succeed. Livestock had to be borrowed, the uncovered arena turned to muck when it rained, and the men lost $13,000 in the first year. But Gay’s big idea gained momentum when a roof was added in 1964 and Interstate 635 was opened in 1970. Four years later, when Gay’s son Don won the first of an eventual eight bull-riding championships, word was out about Mesquite’s little rodeo that could. And the upswing continued: The brand-new Resistol Arena, complete with luxury boxes and instant-replay TV monitors, debuted in 1986 after Don Carter, then-owner of the Dallas Mavericks, bought into the business. In 1999 the $20 million Rodeo Center complex, a hotel and convention center, opened and sports mogul Tom Hicks took full ownership of the MCR for $10 million (Neal Gay remains the producer). But the real coup has been two decades of television coverage, first on ESPN and now on Fox Sports Net Southwest, making the MCR one of the most televised rodeos in the world. On nights when out-of-state visitors are asked to stand, more than half the crowd usually rises.
Now, if you’re considering a visit, you should probably know some basics about rodeo’s most popular event, bull riding: First of all, eighty points out of a possible one hundred is a superb ride. And because the bull’s performance is judged too (it’s half the score), those clowns you see are doing more than acting a fool—they’re actually boosting a cowboy’s total by leading the animal so it turns in a circle as it bucks. A tip: If you admit to the clueless sightseer next to you that you’re from Texas, you might quickly follow up with these facts. You wouldn’t want your residency questioned. Apr 6–Sep 29. 1818 Rodeo Dr, 972-285-8777, mesquiterodeo.com
The Filter: Events
Where to Go, What to Do, Who to See
Birds of a Feather
It’s April in Texas: Do you know where your birding enthusiast is? Any avian aficionado worth her Leica binoculars will be heading to the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail—a six-hundred-mile strip that starts near Beaumont and arcs all the way down to Brownsville—to compete in the Great Texas Birding Classic, the highly anticipated championship game that draws eagle-eyed rivals to arguably the top birding destination in the country. Nearly fifty teams gathered last year, with some scouring the entire coastal area over a five-day period and others focusing on a single section of coastline in 24 hours’ time. The challenge, of course, is to know not only what various birds look and sound like but also where to find them in the first place. Whether it’s in the coastal marshes, the prairies, the woods, or along the beaches, the competitors leave no habitat unexplored as they document each flycatcher and nighthawk and kestrel and waxwing they see. Last year’s winning trio spotted a record-breaking 340 species over five days and got to designate $20,000 to a conservation project of their choice. With auxiliary contests like the Big Sit Tournament (who can count the most species from one location), the Outta-Sight Song Birder Tournament (in which blind or visually impaired birders identify species by birdsong), and the Migration Challenge (open to teams who live outside Texas), as well as divisions for Roughwings (youths thirteen and under) and Gliders (fourteen- to eighteen-year-olds), the GTBC is as inclusive as it is diverse. And for those of us who wouldn’t be able to tell a wigeon from a pigeon (the former is a medium-sized duck, just to clarify), it’s the perfect introduction to the hundreds of bird species that call the state home, if only temporarily. Apr 15–22. Various locations, 979-480-0999, tpwd.state.tx.us/gtbc
It’s been two years since Midtown Live, the city’s premier African American—owned nightclub, burned to the ground. Bystanders at the scene noticed a message on a computer screen in a police officer’s patrol car that read “Burn, baby, burn” and locals were incensed. To help quell the unrest, a study was commissioned to evaluate the quality of life for African American residents. One of the more than fifty recommendations made was the creation of the Urban Music Festival, which drew thousands to Town Lake’s Auditorium Shores last year to see Chaka Khan, Ray J, and other R&B and hip-hop stars. Now the event is back with an even more interesting mix of pioneers (the O’Jays, Cameo) and of-the-moment sensations (Dwele, Angie Stone). But the UMF is just one attempt to bolster the city’s cultural resources; the hope is that it will inspire similar happenings. There are already signs of new life: After two years, Midtown Live is finally rising from the ashes. The reconstructed club is set to be up and running again by the end of July. Apr 6 & 7. Auditorium Shores, 950 W. Riverside Dr; 800-514-3849; urbanmusicfest.com
The Soprano’s New Clothes
In 1966 the Houston Grand Opera celebrated the opening of its new home, Jones Hall, with a performance of “Aida,” Giuseppe Verdi’s Egyptian epic of love and betrayal. Twenty-one years later, in 1987, the HGO celebrated the opening of another new home, the Wortham Theater Center, with the same tragic tale. Critics were in awe of Pier Luigi Pizzi’s “uncluttered” scenery and extra touches, such as dozens of handheld torches and a remarkable 25-foot-high bronze bust of the god Ptah. (The mood was surely heightened by Placido Domingo and Mirella Freni in the lead roles.) Pizzi’s production was restaged in 1993—and again in 1999—but by then was becoming a bit passé. Even though the HGO is presenting Aida yet again this month, history will not be repeating itself. In fact, general director Anthony Freud has given the style pendulum a great push in the other direction by hiring British fashion designer Zandra Rhodes—she with the shocking pink hair and eccentric clothing collections—to dream up a new set and costumes. Her sketches for Aida reveal a rainbow of colors and a confluence of patterns, and everything, from backdrops to headpieces, seems to shine with a golden patina. Curiously, in an attempt to be historically accurate, Rhodes originally intended for the female singers to wear flesh-colored suits so they’d look au naturel because, as she said, when “you look back to the…original imagery…the women had their busts [uncovered].” Not surprisingly, the HGO balked, and the final designs are more covered up, though no less striking. Aida’s complicated love triangle doesn’t need any added dramatics, mind you, but Rhodes’s bold handiwork seems just the thing to reinvigorate one of the HGO’s most beloved operas. Apr 13-May 5. Wortham Theater Center, Brown Theater, Texas Ave & Smith; 713-228-6737; houstongrandopera.org
Girls Just Wanna Have Fun
Back in January, a group of cheerleaders at McKinney North High School, near Dallas, earned a national reputation as mean girls run amok. “Boozing, bikinis, and bullying,” read one headline. “Texas cheerleaders terrorize town,” blared another. Even if the reports were greatly exaggerated, the issues at the heart of the controversy—peer pressure, harassment, gossip—continue to percolate in high schools across the country. In fact, the fraught world of teen cliques has inspired a new play, “The Secret Life of Girls,” which debuts at the Dallas Children’s Theater this month. In Linda Daugherty’s premiere, Abby, the new girl on the volleyball team, jockeys for position within the high school caste system, forms alliances, and learns the subtle art of manipulation. At the center of the story are a teenager’s favorite pastimes: sending instant messages, texting, and capturing embarrassing images on camera phones. But as Abby discovers, what seem like harmless amusements are tools used to spread rumors and bully others. This isn’t the first time that the DCT has illuminated the anxiety-ridden milieu that is high school. In 1987 the DCT presented Kegger, about underage drinking; more recently, 2002’s Deadly Weapons, about school violence, caused a stir because a knife was brandished onstage (the Fort Worth Independent School District said the play violated its zero-tolerance policy and chose not to take students to see it). The DCT, which was named one of the top five children’s theater groups in the country by Time, in 2004, is setting the pace for teen-oriented drama by continuing to commission new works that focus on the realities of today’s youth. The secret life of girls may be front-page fodder, but it’s certainly not histrionics. Apr 13-May 13. Rosewood Center for Family Arts, Studio Theater, 5938 Skillman; 214-740-0051; dct.org
Changing of the Baton
As the Amarillo Symphony’s eighty-second season comes to a close this month, so too does James Setapen’s nineteen-year run as music director. When the New York native came to Amarillo in 1988 by way of Denver, his first move— reauditioning the entire orchestra—shocked many and signaled that he would not tolerate less-than-impressive musicianship, even if his was the only professional orchestra in the Panhandle. Ever since Setapen announced in April 2005 that this season would be his last, the community has been atwitter as the months-long search for his successor unfolded. (Incidentally, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra just wrapped up its own search for a new music director, but as one critic noted, it was “as tightly guarded as an undercover operation in Afghanistan.” The newly appointed Jaap van Zweden will take over in the 2008–2009 season.) First, about two hundred applicants were narrowed down to four, each of whom conducted one of the first four concerts of the season last fall. Among them were Eduardo Espinel, a Venezuelan who has led rehearsals for the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra; Byung-Hyun Rhee, who hails from Korea and recently ended a five-year stint as associate conductor with the Nashville Symphony; and Joel Smirnoff, a New Yorker who frequently performs with Tony Bennett and happens to be the first violinist of the Juilliard String Quartet. But the candidate who got the nod from the thirteen-member search committee was forty-year-old Kimbo Ishii-Eto (that’s “Ee-she Ay-toe”), who was previously the music director for the Cayuga Chamber Orchestra, in Ithaca, New York. Born in Taiwan, Ishii-Eto always dreamed of becoming a concert violinist, but his plans were dashed after he was diagnosed with focal dystonia, a neurological condition that causes uncontrollable muscular contractions. Trained at the State Conservatory in Vienna as well as at Juilliard, Ishii-Eto has appeared as a guest conductor with orchestras across Europe, Asia, and the States. So why move to Amarillo? To advance his career, of course. He’s finally mature enough (in Ishii-Eto’s own words) and ready to lead a larger orchestra. But first Setapen will be sent out in style with this month’s final performance, in which the departing maestro will direct the symphony in Mozart’s powerful—and, fittingly, final—work the Requiem Mass in D Minor. The Ishii-Eto era begins in September, so mark your calendar. Apr 20 & 21. Globe-News Center for the Performing Arts, 500 S. Buchanan; 806-376-8782; amarillosymphony.org
Come Sail Away
“When people think of sailboat racing, they picture a stodgy yacht club, but we’re just a bunch of middle-class guys out having fun,” says Kevin Box, the principal race officer of this month’s Texas Race Week, a three-day excuse for some forty area sailing teams to compete for bragging rights and the grand prize Texas Navy Cup. Four or five classes of watercraft—ranging anywhere from 22 to 48 feet long—will set sail together from East Beach (on Thursday and Friday) and from right in front of the Flagship Hotel (on Saturday). Because there’s a handicap system in place to even the playing field, merely crossing the finish line first won’t ensure victory. It’ll still be nose to nose at the end, but the real thrills just might be at the start of the race. “You’ve got maybe fifteen boats, which weigh five to ten tons each, jockeying for position, all trying to make that starting line when the gun goes off,” says Box. “They may only be going six to seven miles per hour, but it’s quite the sight to see these massive boats so close to each other.” The Galveston Bay Cruising Association, which oversees the regatta, would like Texas Race Week to attract big-name crews. Of course, Galveston’s marinas would have to expand as well to accommodate more sailing vessels. But for now, the event has about as much pomp as a fishing pier. No yacht club membership is required, after all, to relax on the beach and enjoy the view as beautiful spinnakers unfurl and bulky crafts make graceful turns along the coastline. Apr 26-28. East Beach, 1923 Boddeker Dr; Flagship Hotel, 2501 Seawall Blvd; 888-425-4753; galveston.com
The Right Angle
For those of you who haven’t realized that Latin American art goes beyond Frida Kahlo, there are two extremely well-edited exhibits on display that will correct this misconception. Though the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston gets the most attention for its once-in-a-lifetime blockbusters, its smaller shows are rarely slouches either, this month’s case in point being “Constructing a Poetic Universe: The Diane and Bruce Halle Collection of Latin American Art.” The Discount Tire founder and his wife have amassed one of the most significant collections of modern and contemporary Latin American works, a niche that American audiences are only now learning to fully appreciate. The majority of the sixty pieces that you’ll see here date from the eighties to present day. Two to look for: Tunga’s six-foot-high Exogenous Axis (Cordelia), a giant bedpost-like structure topped with a metal chalice, and Guillermo Kuitca’s Catalano I, a charcoal-and-acrylic painting that vaguely resembles a baseball diamond and is so detailed with lines and shapes that it will draw you in for a closer look. Another exhibit, “The Geometry of Hope: Latin American Abstract Art From the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection,” now in its final month at the Blanton Museum of Art, in Austin, will also knock down any preconceived ideas you have about the genre. Arranged chronologically—from 1930’s Montevideo to 1970’s Caracas—the more than 125 works by some forty artists brazenly defy what the show’s generous Venezuelan benefactor, Cisneros, has dubbed as Latin American art’s “Chiquita Banana” image problem; in other words, there isn’t a figurative or tragic Kahlo-esque piece among them. About halfway through “Geometry,” you’ll round a corner and come upon Lygia Pape’s The Book of Creation; the small, colorful cardboard assemblages lined up on a shelf are meant to reflect a Genesis-inspired timeline of human advancement (discovering fire, inventing the wheel, and so on) and prove that geometric forms can communicate ideas just as profoundly as more-traditional pictorial ones. So whether in Houston or Austin, be prepared to throw out stereotypical assumptions of what Latin American art looks like and behold the creative disparities. MFAH: Through Jun 10. 5601 Main, 713-639-7300, mfah.org. Blanton: Through Apr 22. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd & Congress Ave, 512-471-7324, blantonmuseum.org