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Correction to This Article
A previous version of this article misspelled the name of an architect of the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre. The architect is Joshua Prince-Ramus.

The Impulsive Traveler: Dallas Art District offers sculpture, music and more

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By Stephen Jermanok
Sunday, November 22, 2009

I walk through the light-infused Renzo Piano building to the outdoor courtyard, where a bronze by Joan Miró greets me. One of Henry Moore's more abstract reclining nudes is perched perfectly next to the fountain, under a weeping willow tree. Moving to a room designed by James Turrell, I take a seat on a granite bench and peer up at the clear blue skies through a rectangular cut in the ceiling.

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"I've sat here during all of Mother Nature's moods -- sun, rain, clouds, wind -- and I never fail to be mesmerized," says local Mark Boehm.

I haven't felt this meditative in an artistic milieu since sitting inside the Rothko Chapel in Houston, a city with a well-earned reputation as the cultural core of Texas. The Turrell Room, however, resides in the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, a city better known for shopping malls and sports. After all, this is Jerry Jones country, where the owner of the Cowboys just opened an attractive $1.2 billion stadium that boasts the largest high-def JumboTron in the world. Surprisingly, the art scene in Dallas thrives as well, especially with the addition of a new opera house and a theater down the street from the Nasher, both unveiled on Oct. 12.

All these cultural attractions line Flora Street, the backbone of the Dallas Arts District. I recently spent a weekend in the city, and I'm happy to report that apart from my trip to and from the airport, I never had to set foot in my car. In a city where highways branch out in every direction like spokes on a wheel, and people are rarely seen walking the sidewalks, it's a remarkable achievement.

I spent my days checking out the art at the Nasher and the Dallas Museum of Art, the first structure built in the district in 1984. Inside, you'll find a strong American art collection that includes one of Frederick Church's monumental works, "The Icebergs" (1861), and other impressive paintings by Copley, Sargent, Cole and Marin.

The next building to arrive was the I.M. Pei-designed Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. The $70 million Nasher made its debut in 2003, solidifying this neighborhood's identity as a burgeoning cultural mecca and no doubt inspiring the new wave of buildings.

Next door to the Symphony Center is the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House, created by yet another Pritzker-prize winner, Norman Foster. Its signature red cylindrical drum, lit up at night, juts up from the glass-enclosed building and the surrounding canopy that works as a sun shade to cool off the outdoor pavilion and the building itself. Inside that glass drum is the Margaret McDermott Performance Hall, a classic five-tiered horseshoe-shaped opera house that seats 2,200. The stage is massive, set back at such depth that all the seats have good sight lines. The building also houses a smaller recital hall.

The glass face of the Winspear is a gesture to the public that this opera house is accessible to all. During intermission, the lobby walls open like a garage door so that people can pour out onto the concourse.

The first floor of the new Wyly Theater, directly across from the Winspear, is also glass-enclosed so that folks can peek in. Yet that's the only similarity between Foster's stately building and the far more contemporary theater designed by Rem Koolhaas, also a Pritzker winner, and Joshua Prince-Ramus. The Wyly is an 11-story tower covered in long, thin aluminum tubes that look like the flutes Andean bands play on the streets of New York.

I walk down the sloping concrete from the plaza into the lobby, which is actually the basement of the building, then ascend the aluminum steps into the main hall. The 575-seat theater, shaded from the hot Texas sun by tall curtains, is a genuine fun house, where the stage pivots and rotates, the balcony can be raised with a click of a button, and seats on the floor can be removed. So one moment, the Wyly can be a working theater, the next day a large nightclub dance floor.

Other whimsical touches include a performance space with an outdoor Astroturf play area where you can have a picnic, and a black box theater that will showcase the works of Neil LaBute in February.

On the rooftop terrace, you see the parking lots on nearby Ross Street that could one day soon turn into residential housing and truly change the Dallas Arts District into more of a neighborhood than a destination. The area is already home to the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, where such graduates as Norah Jones and Erykah Badu first belted out their now-famous vocals. On the horizon are an outdoor amphitheater and City Performance Hall, set to open in 2011, and a new five-acre park.

"What we need in this section of town is an affordable place to eat," says Maria May, an employee at the AT&T Performing Arts Center, the umbrella organization that runs both the Winspear and the Wyly.

In the meantime, the area has several top-tier restaurants, but you'll have to splurge. After touring the Nasher, I strolled over to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, on whose ground floor sits the highly touted Fearing's Restaurant. Dean Fearing, the longtime chef at the Mansion on Turtle Creek, relocated to the Ritz in 2007, only to win the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant in America and garner the No. 1 hotel restaurant in the country rating from Zagat's.

One bite of the yellowtail tuna tartare topped with white miso ice cream, and you believe the hype. Taking breaks from the kitchen, the gregarious Fearing walks the floor, cracking jokes in his Texas twang. When I remark that the wine glasses are goblets better suited for a giant, he replies, "Heck, son, everything's bigger in Texas." This includes the maple-glazed buffalo tenderloin, so melt-in-your-mouth tender, you understand why it's the restaurant's most popular dish.

"When I opened this joint, this one guy kept bugging me to try his Comanche buffalo from Lawton, Oklahoma," says Fearing. "I laughed him off, but he was insistent." When he tried it, Fearing says, "I nearly fainted."

Head to Dallas and its blossoming Arts District, and you too might be in for a surprise.

Jermanok, a freelance writer in Boston, blogs daily at http://www.activetravels.com.


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