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The 36th Spoleto Festival USA kicked off under sunny skies and an explosion of confetti after the bell ringers in St. Michael’s tower chimed at the corner of Broad and Meeting streets at noon downtown today. The crowd, sporting a mix of straw hats, seersucker suits, and sundresses fanned themselves as the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Brass Ensemble played Aaron Copeland’s "Fanfare for the Common Man" and festival general director Nigel Redden worked the crowd wishing attendees “Happy Spoleto.”

The Rev. Dr. William Swinton of Ebenezer AME Church, who attended his first ballet performance at the first Spoleto in 1977, gave the invocation and was followed by the festival’s newly appointed chairman of the board Carlos Evans. Other luminaries included Italian sister city Spoleto mayor Daniele Benedetti, NEA chairman Rocco Landesman (sporting a khaki suit, Panama hat, cowboy boots, and wraparound sunglasses), South Carolina Arts Commission chair Sarah Lynn Hayes, Dr. Ted Stern, Spoleto chair emeritus (who’s soon to celebrate his 100th birthday), and Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr.

Riley’s comments roused the crowd, saying that the arts are not optional, they are absolutely essential to any and every community. And, he continued, the effect of so many Spoleto and Piccolo Spoleto performers striving for excellence with every single moment of every single show—some 800 shows this year alone—inspires the town and its residents to cast aside mediocrity, too. This inspiration, he said, translates to how we design houses for the poor, how we build a groundbreaking new airliner, and how we live everyday. On that heady note, Riley announced, “Let the music begin, the dancers dance, the children play, and the banners wave!” 

When the exploding streamers settled to the ground, Alvin Ailey dancer Kanji Segawa took to the stage and writhed, hopped, and shuddered to Robert Battle’s “Takademe”. Soon after the music stopped and Segawa bowed, the Memorial-Day-ready crowd dispersed. “Mellower than most years,” said one vet to the opening. “Just perfect,” said a newbie who has lived here since 1988 but had never seen the kickoff. “I am always working,” she said, “struggling and working, but this year it was time.” Indeed.