By Bill Hirschman
When Hurricane Andrew devastated south Dade County in 1992 and thousands of people moved away never to return, skeptics wondered if the area would ever resurrect itself.
While that question was answered long ago, the exclamation point will be added next week when the gleaming South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center holds its grand opening in Cutler Bay.
Two side-by-side sleek edifices notable for their angular design and huge glass walls have already hosted a handful of programs since late spring.
But the gala slated for Oct. 1 and 2 with both free and ticket-only performances of music, dance and visual art is a celebration of a triumph over the natural disaster.
“This center was born out of Hurricane Andrew in many ways,” said Nicolle Noel Ugarriza, the center’s marketing and communications manager. The idea was championed by Miami-Dade County Commissioner Dennis Moss and then-Commissioner Katy Sorenson who continually pushed for the project as part of a long-term reconstruction plan.
“They felt it was an essential part of the economic development of the area. They understood it,” she said.
The battle wasn’t won until the project was approved as part of the Miami-Dade Cultural Affairs Council’s master plan, paid for with county money under the auspices of the county Department of Cultural Affairs.
The result is a $51-million campus at 10950 SW 211th Street with a 966-seat main theater plus a second building with two smaller performance spaces that can triple as classrooms and rehearsal rooms.
The facility is designed to serve a wide range of performance art. Although its current schedule is heavily weighted toward dance and music, the center has created a partnership with the world-famous Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota to share dramatic productions and is negotiating deals with the local theater troupes, Miami Acting Company and the Ground Up and Rising group.
Last May, the Asolo transferred its play Las Meninas for a run at the new facility. The Lynn Nottage play about a Spanish queen who marries a French king and then has an affair with an African pygmy – resulting in a child – scored with the diverse audience that attended, Ugarriza said.
“They were really receptive to it because it had so many entry points,” she said.
Next up from the Asolo is Hamlet Redux, a contemporary interpretation of Shakespeare’s classic turned into a 60-minute play for students in sixth-grade and above. The play will be performed in area schools Oct. 12 and 14 with a performance for the general public at the center Oct. 14. The performances feature “shadow actors” who walk next to the traditional actors, performing the play in American Sign Language.
Finally, the Center is joining with Asolo to produce an even more unique take on the Melancholy Dane’s tale: Hamlet, Prince of Cuba slated for May 11-13, 2012.
While the play will be set in Cuba, many of the details of the new version are being kept under wraps because they are still being solidified. The cast, just selected, includes some New York-trained actors who happen to be Cuban-
Americans from the Miami area, but their names have not been released.
Shakespeare’s text has been adapted by Asolo Producing Artistic Director Michael Donald Edwards in what he called a “fairly radical cutting” of the Bard’s original text. He has sliced the four-hour play in half to make it “narrative driven.” The transposition to a Hispanic milieu will allow the play to be performed with more passion than is often seen, he said.
Both in Miami-Dade and when the show premieres in Sarasota this March, some performances will be presented in English and some in a Spanish translation by noted playwright Eduardo Machado, Edwards said this week.
Most performing arts centers have a facet that connects with the community, but the new center has expanded that from one of its goals to a major element of its central mission. The underlying idea was to provide a major facility for neighborhoods whose residents often had to drive to Miami or a local church basement to see performance-based art.
The center is located in an area with a wildly diverse economic and ethnic demographic with a large number of Hispanic and African-American residents. As a result, much of the programming is designed to speak to those communities. Last summer, the center held a summer camp emphasizing hip-hop music. Saturday night’s gala will feature performances by members of Jean P.Jam, Lanzallamas Monofónica, The Lee Boys, Rosie Herrera Dance Theatre, Spam Allstars and Tiempo Libre.
Similarly, the acts being booked by the center are being strongly encouraged to provide outreach classes and performances in the community. For instance, last summer when New York choreographer Doug Varone came to perform, the center facilitated his teaching classes at Coral Reef Senior High School in southwest Miami and Miami MacArthur High School in Naranja.
“Doug and his dancers were out in the community for a full week before they had even done a performance,” Ugarriza said. He even included students into one of his performances. “The first orchestra in our orchestra was a high school orchestra,” she said.
Another part of connecting to the community is making ticket prices affordable, often $10 to $35. “We recognize that we’re in the middle of a recession and that we’re in a community that really hasn’t had a good amount of access to the arts,” Ugarriza said.
That philosophy extends to renting out its facilities. “We’ve tried to make our rental rates truly affordable. We have a sliding scale if you’re a small cultural organization with a limited budget,” Ugarriza said.
The gala occurs Saturday, October 1, at 8p.m. and Sunday, October 2, at 3p.m.
Tickets are $50, $35, $20 on Saturday night and $40, $25, $10 on Sunday afternoon. Sunday pricing also includes $5 Culture Shock tickets for youth ages 13-22, half- off for children ages 6-12 and $5 off for seniors at all ticket levels.
Free pre-show outdoor activities begin at 6:45 p.m. on Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday in the campus’ plaza.
For more information call (786) 573-5300 or visit www.smdcac.org.