New South Miami-Dade cultural center opens to rave reviews

 
October 4, 2011
The occasion may have been the formal inauguration of a major government arts facility.

But with dancers shaking, drums pounding, and a gospel children's choir shouting into the sun-filled air, the atmosphere at the long-awaited opening of the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center in Cutler Bay on Sunday afternoon was more like a community pep rally slash church picnic slash throw-down family party.

Teen and 20-something dancers plucked from the surrounding South Dade neighborhoods shimmied, leapt and lunged down the Center's central plaza. The all-female African drum and dance troupe Venus Rising beat out exuberant rhythms and filled the air with whirling limbs.

The South Florida Boys and Girls Choir, whose tiny front line of white-shirted singers looked like they were still in kindergarten, gave full-throated praise while many in the audience around them swayed as if they were still in one of the numerous churches that fill the area.

The crowd of approximately 500 that crowded round them was extraordinarily diverse even by South Florida standards: elderly African-American women with walkers, throngs of children of all colors, middle-aged hippie-ish couples.

Katrina Bumpers, leader of Girl Scout Troupe 1896 from the Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church in Perrine, had brought all 40 scouts with her. "We've seen the building going up and we couldn't wait for the grand opening," Bumpers said. Her friend Alicia Smith, a nurse at Jackson South, was also thrilled. "It's wonderful to see the children and all the talent we have right here in Cutler Bay."

The opening was the culmination of a nearly 20-year-long effort launched when South Dade leaders began planning how to rebuild the area after it was devastated by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. An arts center was high on the list of community demands. Steadfastly championed by County commissioner Dennis Moss, in the mid-2000's the center became a central component of an ambitious, $452 million plan by the Miami-Dade Cultural Affairs Council plan to build and renovate arts facilities across the county.

On Sunday, the council's director Michael Spring was beaming at the crowd filling the plaza. "It just feels spectacular," Spring said. "What's particularly great is the reaction of the public here. They're just overwhelmingly excited. We feel we've set off on our mission in the right way."

The $51 million, two building complex, designed by the prestige architectural firm Arquitectonica, is a sleek, sophisticated edifice that would do any city proud.

But the center's emphasis on community service and programming was apparent in its formal debut. Instead of an expensive gala with big name stars, there was the free performance by a gamut of South Dade area arts groups on the Center's outdoor plaza. Tickets for the main show inside the theater started at $5 and topped out at $40.

Ronald K. Brown, a celebrated New York based choreographer who put together the outdoor show, said he was impressed by the quality and discipline of the performers he selected from the area. "It's amazing to see the talent that is out there, whatever the age or discipline," said Brown, whose dance troupe will perform at the Center in the spring.

One of the standout talents was 24-year old dancer Michael A. Williams, who'd begun dancing at Homestead Senior High, and who'd mostly performed at talent shows and private parties. "It's a big surprise to have this place in our backyard," Williams said. "Hopefully I can put on a show here someday."

The opening weekend included a Saturday night show filled with speeches and a host of politicians, including Moss and fellow commissioners Lynda Bell and Javier Souto and Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez. Sunday's festivities had more of a family, communal atmosphere.

In the lobby of the main theater, the center's general manager Eric Fliss greeted a stream of people offering congratulations and asking how they could participate or perform.

"It's great," said Fliss. "I was charged with this mission of making this place accessible to the community, and people are just pouring out, wanting to be involved."

The main performance was also a communal effort, from an array of over 35 vibrant Miami-Dade musicians, dancers, actors, singers, visual and media artists, including theater artist Teo Castellanos, choreographer Rosie Herrera, musical director Jordy Gomez of Tiempo Libre, Spam Allstars leader DJ Le Spam, and painter Edouard Duval Carrie.

The artists created the show, called A Journey of Community and Collaboration, in just two weeks. It showed a bucolic community destroyed by Hurricane Andrew, depicted with strident music, flailing dancers, flashing lights and images of the storm's destruction, a defiant hurricane party.

Afterwards, they depicted a journey from despair to hope, ending with an exuberant, celebratory musical jam, with singer-saxophonist AJ Hill leading the performers in singing "What you gonna build from this crisis? Opportunity!" as the audience stood and clapped along.

For Chanel Cole, 23, one of the local dancers who performed on the plaza, the excitement was overwhelming. Cole, who is deaf and mute, tried to write down how she felt.

"I adore it! It's an honor being here!" she scribbled in a reporter's notebook. Then Cole gave up on words, instead spiraling her body and opening her hands to the air, her face alive with delight.


New South Miami-Dade cultural center opens to rave reviews
By Jordan Levin - Miami Herald