The Artful Traveler: Dallas Arts District

Posted on 11 November 2009

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Wyly Theatre, Dallas.
Reviewed by Richard West

"Swimgloat." A Joycean word James coined as an expression of joy that comes from a great success. You confidently can assume Dallas is swimgloating after the October 12th sockeroo opening of its $354 million, 10-acre AT&T Performing Arts Center on a once humdrum, parking lot-littered landscape on the edge of downtown. Now there's the ruby red luminous drum of the Winspear Opera House; the nine-story boxed Wyly Theatre, stark and glacial with its facade of hundreds of rippling aluminum tubes; a connecting landscaped park by M. Desvigne of Paris; and the still a-building City Performance Hall and the Annette Strauss Artist Square (capacity: 5,000) for outdoor shows.



    Swimgloating because it's the latest and most dramatic addition to the city's larger 68-acre arts district that includes five world-class starchitect's work (four Pritzker winners) that began with the 1984 opening of the Dallas Museum of Art (Edward Larrabee Barnes); the Morton Meyerson Symphony Center ( I.M. Pei, 1989); the Nasher Sculpture Center (Renzo Piano, 2003); and now Sir Norman Foster's opera house and Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus' theatre.
    All these "flabbergastrive staggerments" (coinage, J.R. R. Tolkien) are no doubt very gratifying to civic leaders who've been working to assemble the district for 32 years. On a quiet morning in the new park you can hear decades of the echoing cries of Sisyphrustration.
    While Unus Illis Deus Nummus Est -– "they worship only one god there, cash" — really isn't the city's motto (football and fashion are other idols), the private money raised is astonishing: 133 gifts of $1 million or higher, $18 million voted in a 2003 bond election, $42 million by the Winspear family for the opera house, $20 million by the Wyly clan for the theatre more than 90% of the total cost from private sources. Recession or no, the pecuniary gland in Big D is big and healthy.

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Rem Koolhass (left) and Sir Norman Foster at the opening. Phtoos by Dena Timm.

   After a guided walk through the opera house and theatre with architects Foster and Koolhass and attending opening night opera and ballet selections at the Winspear, I can state the money was well spent.

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Winspear Opera House, Dallas.

    The grand new opry: a gigantic drum covered in deep-red glass panels that enclose the house and backstage; 60-foot glass walls wrapping around the see-and-be-seen lobby and cafe‚ opening to the park; all shaded outside by a 63-foot-high, three-acre canopy whose heliocentric louvered panels follow the sun to help shade patrons when Dallas days are hotter than the First Baptist hell. The 2,200-seat performance space, a classic horseshoe construct which includes a spectacular 70-foot-tall chandelier of 320 lighted acrylic tubes above the seating that retract into a constellation of pinprick lights when the show begins. A fine place indeed for a cheerful earful of Wagner or Verdi or to hear the flighty gallop of a flute.
    The Wyly Theatre: a colder space, vertically techno and stark. The main stage can be radically reconfigured  and the seats raised or lowered using a complex system of pulleys and winches, all arranged above or below the chameleon-like stage rather than around it. Theater goers descend a ski-slope steep concrete incline to a below-ground lobby floor of concrete and light from hanging, halo-esque fluorescent tubes. It's truly new, a theatrum mundi ready to host anything from whirling Dervish dancers, troubadours and mimes, to Shakespeare and Beckett.
    The real point of all this, of course, is to revitalize downtown Dallas but that will take time. Meanwhile, this spectacular new arts district is well worth visiting. If you do so, I recommend staying at the newly opened Joule Hotel (1530 Main St.) a walking distance away. And one must eat: at the high-rise One Arts Plaza just east of the new district, don't miss Teiichi Sakurai's hand-made soba noodles at Tei An (1722 Routh St.) or the coriander-rubbed rack of lamb at Stephan Pyles at nearby 1807 Ross Avenue.
   

RICHARD WEST spent nine years as a writer and senior editor
at Texas Monthly before moving to New York to write for New York and Newsweek.
Since then, he's had a distinguished career as a freelance writer. West was
awarded the National Magazine Award for Reporting in 1980 and is a member of
Texas Arts & Letters.

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