The professional skateboarders at Falling Up and Getting Down, University Musical Society’s (UMS) season-opening event on Sunday, September 11, at Ann Arbor Skatepark, riveting as they were, were just part of the event's attraction. Jazz trio Jason Moran and the Bandwagon, joined by saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, were improvising on a stage behind the bowl. Instruments were in conversation with each other, and the conversation included the skaters too.
The skaters’ own improvisations didn’t respond to individual musical statements, at least not that I could perceive; rather, the feel of the music infused all the skating with its particular energy. The edge of the stage proved a highly permeable boundary between music and skateboards; skater Chuck Treece joined the Bandwagon on guitar and skater Ron Allen took the mike to layer rhyme over the music. Early on, Tom Remillard launched himself up and over the lip of the pool to briefly plant a foot on the edge of the stage before hurling himself back down the steep face of the pool like a wheeled stage diver, a maneuver that other skaters riffed on later.
The skaters were the main attraction for me. Having surfed but never been on a skateboard, I imagined their ride to be like catching one constant wave. What a rush it must be, plunging down into the trough of the concrete “bowl” and then decelerating as they ride up its concave side. Sometimes they immediately cut down again, sometimes they skated along the crest, sometimes they hit a divine moment of suspension at the top—airborne, or upside-down balanced on one hand, the other hand fixing the board to the soles of their feet. There was wow-inducing virtuosity (and good-natured rebounds out of the failed attempts at that virtuosity), but what I found most hypnotic was the fact of the ride: that ongoing forward propulsion, and the pendulum energy of their recurring drops into and ascents out of the bowl.
Hot skateboarders and hot music together: that’s a lot going on. But there was still more, something about the people assembled in the park. “Community” comes to mind, but I rush to justify that worn-out word and provide examples of what I have in mind. My twelve-year-old daughter attended a girls-only skateboard session in the morning and got personal instruction from 17-year-old pro Jordyn Barratt. At the event, Barratt mugged for a photographer as she rode her board in an arc over the head of Ken Fischer, UMS President, who was seated at the bottom of the bowl. My daughter was star-struck (over Barratt, not Fischer!), telling me how cool Jordyn is and, I think, hoping to catch her eye. Meanwhile, local skaters weaved among the pros.
There was a sociable, we’re-all-here-together vibe, and that must be at least partially attributed to UMS’s desire to “give back to the community” with this event. “Community” often means connecting with audiences outside the older, wealthier population usually associated with concert halls, and if that’s the definition in operation here, certain elements of Falling Up and Getting Down were particularly effective. It was free and in a public park. The “free” part is not to be underestimated, especially given the often-prohibitive price tag on concerts in theaters. The “public park” part is also powerful; this was not just any public park with lawns and swing-sets, but a skatepark with cement hills and paths and loops.
There were also a fair number of teenagers, and tattoos, punk rock t-shirts, Chuck Taylor sneakers, and dreadlocks, alongside people with grey hair, tailored clothing, and sensible shoes. I acknowledge how odious generalizations based on appearances are, but admit that I surmised that this older set came for the jazz more than the skateboarding. The fact remains, though, that there were assembled people who looked really different from one another, and their difference was made more striking by the fact that they were side by side at the skatepark. We were all listening to the Bandwagon, and regardless of who considers themselves jazz connoisseurs or knows Jason Moran’s reputation, the sounds they conjured were bewitching. We were all watching the skateboarders fly, and regardless of whether you’ve ever heard of Tom Remillard, it was inspiring and gladdening.
My husband, impressed with the scene, commented how cool it is that our town has a skatepark, that when he was a teenager, skateboarding was on par with doing drugs, wearing black leather jackets, and generally getting in trouble. Skateboarding was not just teenagers, it was bad teenagers; any business with a promisingly inclined stretch of sidewalk posted a prominent “no skateboards” sign. Some of that has obviously changed, either with the time or the place; witness the number of people of all ages on skateboards and the family-friendly vibe at Ann Arbor Skatepark. However, skateboarding still has a reputation and often a feel of angry rebellion and intimidating cool; pro-skateboarder Andy Macdonald’s clean-cut image is an exception that the press makes much of, and I feel instantly old, dowdy, lame, and conservative when I encounter skateboarders on the street.
And the skateboarders didn’t seem off-puttingly cool; they offered one another encouraging high-fives and praise, and shared the limelight with respectful turn-taking. If the situation were reversed, I hope that the clothing and attitudes of the concert hall that might be intimidating to outsiders would be similarly mitigated by friendly and polite interaction.
Anyway, it was a situation in which people of apparent difference found common ground—a true and apt definition of community, compelling me to remove the cynical quotation marks from around that word. While the unusual combination of jazz improvisation and skateboarding—both of the highest quality—was the attraction that drew these people, I think the secret ingredient that enabled this particular instance of community was the setting: the shared public space. And so, I’m impressed with my new home, not just for bringing Jason Moran and Andy Macdonald here, but for bringing them together and for making this happen free of charge in a public venue.
From 1993-2004, Veronica Dittman Stanich danced in New York and co-produced The Industrial Valley Celebrity Hour in Brooklyn. Now, PhD in hand, she writes about dance and other important matters.
The second annual Ann Arbor Art Center community festival and art extravaganza POP-X is set to open on September 22. This multifaceted, multi-disciplinary, multi-artist event will run for 10 days and 10 nights in 10 pavilions right downtown in Ann Arbor's Liberty Square Park.
Each pavilion features the unique vision of an artist or art collective, ranging from poetry to video to floral installation to caricature. There's even a mini-pub serving craft beers, and as if that weren't enough, the spaces outside the pavilions will feature art demonstrations, musical performances, social gatherings, panel discussions and participatory art making throughout the run of the festival, which ends October 1.
The goal of POP-X is to present work that actively engages the community, and this year’s POP-X artists have interpreted this in their own unique ways. Ann Arbor Women Artists, a 300 member non-profit artists' organization, has chosen to implement this vision in the broadest possible way, designing and executing a comprehensively inclusive art installation that cuts across barriers of age, gender, race and disability. Their art installation, Side-by-Side, is the result of many collaborative art-making sessions where professional artists were paired with non-professionals to create the painted faces that will fill the AAWA pavilion on September 22. Project partners range from the very young children of En Nuestra Lengua to the high schoolers of Girls Group, to seniors of the Silver Club and residents of Miller Manor, an apartment for the disabled, and others. Ann Arbor Art Center President and CEO Marie Klopf attended a session held at the Art Center, as did Omari Rush, their Director of Community Engagement. Three City Council Members, Sabra Briere, Chuck Warpehoski and Julie Grand also took time from their busy schedules to be part of the project.
"Our plan was to reach out to individuals in the Ann Arbor Community, despite on-the-surface differences, and to create an art installation which honors both our unique individuality and our shared humanity," –Elizabeth Wilson, Lidia Kaku, Mary Murphy (co-chairs).
Community arts projects are a strange, hybrid beast, part crafts project, part encounter group, part social club. The success or failure of any project of this kind depends on the planning and design of the installation and its constituent parts. The faces made by artists and their partners will be mounted on a framework on the interior walls of the pavilion, with mirrors incorporated to allow visitors to see themselves in the installation. A sound loop of music will be interwoven with short clips of conversations from pairs talking about the work they are doing and discovering more about each other in the process.
Barbara Melnik Carson, a core member of the working group, maintains that Side-by-Side has been the best example of cooperative art-making in her wide experience. "Everyone worked so well together–there were no egos getting in the way, which isn't always the case," she says. "Each member of the core group has different strengths, and they have all had an opportunity to contribute in their own way."
The members of the project Side-by-Side don't see the completion of this installation as a mission accomplished. They see it as a pilot project for an ongoing community engagement program which would organize citywide pop-up events with the purpose of building lines of communication throughout Ann Arbor.
"We plan to bring the whole world together one portrait at a time," says Barbara Melnik Carson.
K.A. Letts is an artist and art blogger. She has shown her work regionally and nationally and in 2015 won the Toledo Federation of Art Societies Purchase Award while participating in the TAAE95 Exhibit at the Toledo Museum of Art. You can find more of her work at RustbeltArts.com.
POP·X runs Thursday, September 22 – Saturday October 1, 2016 from noon to 8pm at Liberty Plaza Park, 255 East Liberty St., Ann Arbor. To learn more visit popxannarbor.com or the POP•X Facebook event page. POP•X is free and open to the public.
For more information about Ann Arbor Women Artists, visit their website.
AAWA POP-X Committee Members are: Elizabeth Wilson (co-chair), Lidia Kaku (co-chair), Mary Murphy (co-chair), Barbara Melnik Carson, Barbara Bach, Barb Maxson, Joyce Bailey, Lucie Nisson, Marie Howard, Susan Clinthorne, and Sharon St. Mary.
Wild Swan Theater’s 37th season includes their award-winning Rosie the Riveter from last season, plus a couple classics and a holiday favorite--all family-friendly, as all Wild Swan productions are. Each production is staged by professional actors, dancers, musicians, and ASL performers who strive to make performances accessible to audience members who have auditory, visual, or mobility impairments.
The Ugly Duckling (Ages 3-9)
Thu, Oct 27, 10:00 am; Fri, Oct 28, 10:00 am and 12:30 pm; Sat, Oct 29, 11 am
"Resident playwright Jeff Duncan puts his spin on Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of a homely little bird born in a barnyard who is looked down on by everyone around him until, much to his delight (and to the surprise of others), he matures into a majestic swan. Jeremy Salvatori portrays the Ugly Duckling, with Sandy Ryder, Michelle Trame Lanzi, and Barbara Scanlon rounding out the cast. Shelly Tocco and Erin Parrish of Synergy on Stage provide the American Sign Language interpreting. Backstage touch tours and audio-description are available for blind theater patrons. These services are free but must be reserved by calling (734) 995-0530."
A Christmas Carol (Ages 8+)
Thu, Dec 8, 10:00 am; Fri, Dec 9, 10:00 am and 12:30 pm; Sat, Dec 10, 2:00 pm; Sun, Dec 11, 2:00 pm
"Based on the novel by Charles Dickens and adapted for Wild Swan by Jeff Duncan with original music by composer Tom Schnauber, Wild Swan's version of this wonderful holiday classic has been especially created for family audiences and is appropriate for children in 3rd grade and older. A Christmas Carol tells of the astonishing transformation of miserly old Ebeneezer Scrooge after he is visited by three spirits on the night before Christmas."
Owl’s Winter (Ages 3-9)
Thu, Jan 19, 10:00 am; Fri, Jan 20, 10:00 am and 12:30 pm; Sat, Jan 21, 11:00 am
"A delightful collection of stories for young children based on Arnold Lobel's Owl at Home. A first introduction to theater especially created to draw young theater goers into the world of theater arts with these carefully chosen and shaped stories. Special activities provided by Leslie Science and Nature Center."
Drum Me a Story (Ages 3-9)
Thu, Feb 9, 10:00 am; Fri, Feb 10, 10:00 am and 12:30 pm; Sat, Feb 11, 11:00 am
"A delightful collection of African tales performed through storytelling, acting, dancing, and drumming. Colorful costumes, masks, and traditional music will delight and teach our young fans, with lots of opportunities for audience participation!"
Rosie the Riveter (Ages 9+)
Thu, Mar 9, 10:00 am; Fri, Mar 10, 10:00 am and 12:30 pm; Sat, Mar 11, 2:00pm
"An original musical written by playwright Jeff Duncan and composer Brian E. Buckner, Rosie the Riveter tells the remarkable story of the women who came to Michigan from all across the country and all walks of life to fill thousands of factory jobs left empty by men suddenly called to war. With their determination, strength of character, and backbreaking labor, these extraordinary women rallied a nation as they produced B-24 bombers, a plane an hour, day in and day out for the duration of World War II. This is a production that not only brings history alive, but will inspire respect and admiration for the capacity of these Rosies to accomplish more than anyone could have imagined."
Jack and the Beanstalk (Ages 3-9)
Thu, Mar 23, 10:00 am;Fri, Mar 24, 10:00 am and 12:30 pm; Sat, Mar 25, 11:00 am
"This lively rendition of a classic tale presents a humorous giant, appropriate for young theater-goers. In Wild Swan's version, Jack's journey up the fantastical beanstalk not only leads to his encounter with a very silly giant but to the rescue of his long lost father as well. Special activities provided by Growing Hope. Thank you to Domino’s for their sponsorship of Jack and the Beanstalk."
Marketplace Stories – Folktales from the Arab World (Ages 6+)
Thu, May 4, 10:00 am; Fri, May 5, 10:00 am and 12:30 pm; Sat, May 6, 2:00pm
"This new and original production developed in collaboration with the Arab American National Museum and the National Arab Orchestra is inspired by folktales from the Arab world. See this vibrant world come to life through timeless stories and music, passed on from country to country and from one generation to another."
Amy Cantú is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library.
All performances take place at Towsley Auditorium, in the Morris Lawrence Building on the campus of Washtenaw Community College. Purchase tickets online at http://www.wildswantheater.org or by phone at (734) 995-0530. Discounted group rates are available to parties of 10 or more. Tickets are on sale now!
I always enjoy seeing new works by promising playwrights. It’s really exciting to attend a “world premiere” of a brand new work. As an audience member, I feel that I’ve been invited to share in something very exciting and special.
Neighborhood Theatre Group, Ypsilanti’s new theater company, unveils two original one-act plays this weekend. Both of these new works center on relationships and both are by local playwright, Ypsilanti resident and Neighborhood Theatre co-founder A.M. Dean.
The Former Things, directed by Marisa Dluge, tells the story of a couple who are reunited after many years. Uniquely set during the rapture, this one-act features Eric Hohnke, Mimi Keebler, and Tom Hett.
A teenage boy meets a local girl as he vacations up north for the summer in Carl, Baby. An obstacle to their happiness may be his unstoppable and forceful grandmother. Directed by Kristin Anne Danko, this one-act features Neel Vaidya, Alice Duhon, and Colleen Cartwright.
So, why not experience something new this weekend? Neighborhood Theatre Group intends to cultivate a welcoming, collaborative environment for local theatre artists and also provide the audience with a very unique and intimate theatre experience.
Tim Grimes is manager of Community Relations & Marketing at the Ann Arbor District Library and co-founder of Redbud Productions.
Performances of The Former Things and Carl, Baby run from Thursday, September 15 through Saturday, September 17 at Dreamland Theater, 26 N. Washington St. in Downtown Ypsilanti. All shows are at 8 pm. For tickets, visit http://ntgoneacts.brownpapertickets.com. For more information, email email@example.com.
The University of Michigan Museum of Art’s Manuel Álvarez Bravo: Mexico’s Poet of Light is easily going to be one of the most accurate art exhibition titles of 2016. This tidy 23-piece UMMA display shows the world-famed Bravo at his best: For he’s indeed a master of photographic light—as well as a poetic artist.
All photographers are capable of what is sometimes called a “privileged moment.” After all, it would seem simple enough to capture a moment with photography: You just point your camera and click.That's what's been happening photographically for quite nearly this last 150 years ... right?
Well, not quite. After all, you have to know what you're looking for because the most remarkable thing about photography is the camera’s utterly elastic way of recording an image. The world isn't as transparent as might seem apparent on first observation. And it doesn’t take much more than one’s last batch of photos for the confirmation.
Bravo, on the other hand, knew what he wanted to see—but the craft didn’t stop there. For the next rule consists of mechanistically knowing how to get what you want to see. And this is as complicated a task as knowing what one’s looking for.
It’s at this point that poetry arises—and was Bravo ever a masterful poet.
He’s easily one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century. For this poetry is, of course, the magic of all the world's greatest photographers. Like a mechanistic fingerprint, no two photographic styles are ever really the same. Time, space, intuition, and the very act of looking all mark the poetry latent in the photographic medium.
One glance at Manuel Álvarez Bravo: Mexico’s Poet of Light and it's obvious Bravo knew what he was looking for. Each Bravo artwork in this magnificent exhibit is an extraordinarily well thought-out composition where every visual element is accounted for; these physical elements being weighted against the tone of light, the density of light, the direction of light, the volume of light—and then there’s the poetry.
What’s left in the image is the world unto itself.
Granted, the time in which Bravo was working is romantic. Mid-20th century Mexico was a world where the natural and the supernatural seemingly melded together in a heady exotic brew and where the sacred and the profane coexist comfortably. There’s seemingly no separation between what is well and what is well-enough.
Born into an artistic Mexican family, Bravo was forced to terminate his education at the age of 12 when his father died in 1914. Studying accounting as he worked for the Mexican Treasury Department, Bravo freelanced photojournalism while learning the basics of art photography. It was through the friendship of fashion model and political activist Tina Modotti that he made contact with American photographer Edward Weston who in turn encouraged him to polish his craft.
Having lived through the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920, Bravo was inclined to view his art through the prism of natural supernatural romanticism (and later surrealism) that marks early 20th-century Mexican aesthetics. As can be seen in the photographs of this exhibit, Bravo wrestled with the stereotypes that stamp much Mexican artistry while often using echoes of this stylization to comment upon them. Bravo's camera consistently catches these contradictions with a fluid grace that never editorializes while knowingly commenting on what’s depicted.
This means that every element of Bravo's photography is weighted against the composition's visibility as well as the reflection of Mexican culture as he lived and understood it. The result is indeed sheer poetry cum anthropology, as none of these photographs are never quite what they appear.
For example, Bravo’s 1977 gelatin silver print Señor de Papantla (“The Man of Papantla”) is a decidedly clever photograph whose background and meaning are richer than apparent in the already rich photograph of a Mexican campesino dressed in his best peasant garb. For the locale of the painting is as important as the image in that Papantla (in the state of Vera Cruz; in the Sierra Papanteca range, near the Gulf of Mexico) is famed as one of Mexico’s “pueblo mágico”—a city of particular natural beauty with historic and cultural relevance.
Bravo’s Señor stands stiffly with his sombrero tucked under his right arm posed in front of a nondescript stone wall. Standing under the diagonal right shade of a tree with his hair parted in the same direction to create an internal symmetry, of equal importance is his eyes cast away to the left in the same way. Averting the photographer’s gaze, Bravo’s Señor reflects the subdued unwillingness to cooperate that’s often characterized the citizenry of a country that’s seen centuries of repetitive political, social, and cultural upheaval.
By contrast, famed Mexican artist Frida Kahlo adopts an opposite stance for Bravo’s camera in her 1938 Frida with Globe, Coyoacan, Mexico gelatin silver print. Where the campesino was not directly addressing the camera, Kahlo challenges the camera by looking directly at Bravo. This act, of course, is in direct contrast to the Mexican sense of social propriety where the expectation would decidedly be a repressed feminine averral.
Even in the late 1930s, Kahlo (and by extension, Bravo) were having none of this modesty. Sheer appropriateness is drawn from her forthright respectability, as though the appropriateness of one’s behavior is as much one of correctness as it is self-respect. Seated with her left elbow propping her left hand against her cheek, Kahlo is everything she intends to be.
But Bravo is also addressing his audience in that a single subtle compositional element twitches the history of art anachronistically. For in contrast to Diego Velázquez’s 1656 painting Las Meninas (where Velázquez paints himself painting the painting), Bravo eliminates himself from his photograph because there is no photographer reflected in the globe on the table next to Kahlo’s left. Surrealism was, of course, in full force in Europe at this time and Bravo opts to magically disappear in his own artwork.
If, however, one wants to find Bravo at the height of his power as a photographer, his famed 1932 gelatin silver print Retrato de lo eterno (“Woman Combing her Hair”) seals the deal. The exact translation of the title is “Portrait of the Eternal” and while the more prosaic “Woman Combing her Hair” is certainly accurate, the fantastic inference of “Portrait of the Eternal” is more enduring.
As I noted in the September 2002 UMMA Manuel Álvarez Bravo: 100 Years exhibition, Retrato de lo eterno captures Bravo at his haunting best. This darkly handsome portrait—of yes, a woman combing her hair—is everything its title says. Yet it’s also far more, as Bravo’s key lighting in this black and white photograph boldly exposes the model’s profile while also draping her in a controlled chiaroscuro where graded shadows create layer upon layer of profound mystery. The model’s self-absorbed beauty is veiled in an eternal mist.
Bravo’s Retrato de lo eterno is as much a staggering a work of genius today as it was in 2002. Just consider us lucky to look upon her likeness once again after fifteen years. If only because she’s indeed a portrait of the eternal—and this portrait will be so for a long time to come.
John Carlos Cantú has written on our community's visual arts in a number of different periodicals.
University of Michigan Museum of Art: “Manuel Álvarez Bravo: Mexico’s Poet of Light” will run through October 23, 2016. The UMMA is located at 525 S. State Street. The Museum is open Tuesday-Saturday 11 am–5 pm, and Sunday 12–5 pm. For information, call 734-764.0395.
Oh those middle school years, we remember them well. The humiliation, the anxiety, the bullies, the stress, the dire need to be good at something, what a wonderful time it was.
The Ann Arbor Civic Theatre is presenting a happy bit of nostalgia with The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a musical salute to all those anxiety-ridden kids who strived to be top speller.
The Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre on the central University of Michigan campus is a perfect setting. The stage is simply decorated with a banner for the spelling bee, sponsored by the county optometrists, a riser of bleacher seats, a microphone and a table for the two adult hosts.
Spelling Bee takes a quirky, exaggerated look at some gawky budding adolescents and plays it for laughs that lead to some empathy and respect for the troubled young people who often get noticed for all the wrong reasons in school. Director Wendy Sielaff has brought together a fine cast that ham it up hilariously while also delivering the goods when called on to go deeper into character.
The music by William Finn is serviceable but the lyrics are used to convey those deeper feelings, while Rachel Sheinkin’s Tony-winning book richly skewers school life, spelling bees, and the cluelessness of adults.
We know the types. Here they are played not by middle-school-aged children but by older actors in reflection of those trying years.
Emily Fishman is sweet and appropriately apprehensive at Olive, dressed in an innocent pink jumper. Olive is torn between two neglectful parents and wants to finally get their attention. Fishman has a ringing voice, especially effective in "The I Love You" trio with her parents.
Nathan King is the goofy Leaf Coneybear, the non-achieving younger brother who gets no respect at home. But then again he dresses weirdly and shouts a lot. King brings a touch of Jerry Lewis to Coneybear but also some sweet pathos to "I’m Not That Smart."
Keshia Daisy Oliver is Logainne, the daughter of two gay fathers who want her to succeed a little too fervently. Oliver also finds the spot of empathy and a sweet moment of rebellion.
Bob Cox plays Chip, a boy moving into manhood at just the wrong time. Cox is dressed as a Boy Scout with too many merit badges. He is especially funny in "Chip’s Lament," a ditty about the betrayal of puberty.
Hallie Fox is Marcy, the over-achiever, the success-obsessed Catholic schoolgirl who sums up her anxiety with the song "I Speak Six Languages." Fox gives the character that determined to demented look and snappish voice of a future politician.
Finally, we come to the most outlandish contestant, Barfee (or as he insist, it’s pronounced Barfay). Connor Rhoades goes all out in his wrinkled white shirt, tie and shorts. Barfee is a big boy and the ultimate nerd who uses his foot to help him spell. Rhoades is a giant presence throughout but takes center stage with the "Magic Foot" number. He makes Barfee both anxiety ridden, pathetic, and strangely likeable. Rhoades also plays one of Logainne’s Dads (think Modern Family, here).
The other contestants are played (filled?) by good sports selected from the audience, who on Thursday provided some gentle laughs of their own.
The adult roles are also well played. Alison Ackerman is Rona, the teacher who never got over her success at the Bee. She is every bit the prim but enthusiastic teacher who misses the limelight. Ackerman also plays Olive’s absent in India mother in the "Love Song" trio.
Brandon Cave is excellent as the droll assistant principal Doug Panch who gives the spellers their words and much more. He gets some of the shows wittiest lines and he delivers them with low-key panache.
Finally, we have Nick Rapson as the coach who fills in as the sympathetic comforter of the “losers,” and he has just the right amount of sweet toughness and skepticism about the whole process. Thursday he had some humorous improvisation during his "Prayer of the Comfort Counselor" spotlight and made it special. Rapson also plays Olive’s Dad in the "Love Song" trio and is a hoot as Logainne’s other Dad.
Musical accompaniment by an on-stage five-piece band under the direction of Debra Nichols is solid, especially on some of the humorous percussion moments. Reilly Conlon brings the right clumsy humor and daffiness to the choreography.
Sielaff says this play has long been on her bucket list and now she can check it off as a success. She mines both the outsize humor and the quiet empathy that has make this a popular production across the country.
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee continues at 8 pm Friday and Saturday and 2 pm Sunday at the Mendelssohn. For tickets and information, go online to http://www.a2ct.org, call (734) 971-2228, or purchase at the theatre before each performance.
Both athletes and musicians must be able to improvise, but they rarely do so in tandem.
That will change on Sunday, when the University Musical Society and Friends of the Ann Arbor Skatepark, in collaboration with City of Ann Arbor Parks and Recreation, present a free-style show that combines professional skateboarding with live jazz music.
“Falling Up and Getting Down” takes a concept originated by jazz pianist/composer and MacArthur “Genius” Grant winner Jason Moran – who kicked off the UMS season in 2013 with a Fats Waller Dance Party at Downtown Home & Garden – and brings it to Ann Arbor.
Previously, Moran helped put together a similar event at the Kennedy Center and at the San Francisco Jazz Center, but Ann Arbor’s show will be the first to take place at an in-ground, permanent skatepark.
“The Ann Arbor Skatepark is such a special place,” said UMS senior programming manager Mark Jacobson. “Kids can go there and be safe and hang out and stay out of trouble. The phrase ‘skateboarding saves lives’ is something I truly believe in, just like I believe that music saves lives. Young adults go to the skate park to find themselves, and to find a community. … I’d been at the skatepark’s grand opening, in June of 2014, and I had this thought: how ridiculous would it be if UMS had a season-opening celebration at the skate park?”
Perhaps not so ridiculous, but there has been a lot of work involved over the course of the last year; and although the event costs tens of thousands of dollars to produce, UMS is absorbing the cost into its budget so that anyone can attend for free (though pre-registration is required at ums.org).
“We’re giving back to the community that we love, and that we live in,” said Jacobson. “ … I think right now we have 1,400 registrations, but I think we’ll see 2,000 or 2,500 people out on Sunday. … Roughly the first 90 minutes will be exhibition skaters, from 2:30 to 4, with live DJs providing the music, and then we’ll have the pro skate demo with live music and professional skateboarders.”
Those skaters include X game legend Andy Macdonald; “old schoolers” Ron Allen and Chuck Treece (who’s an accomplished musician himself); young “vert” skating star Tom Remillard; and pro lady skaters Jordyn Barratt and Natalie Krishna Das. Tadd Mullinix and Alvin Hill will DJ the first portion of the event, while Moran and his band, The Bandwagon, featuring saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, will provide “Falling Up”’s live, free-style jazz.
There will also be food trucks on site, including Ricewood BBQ, Bigalora Wood Fired Pizza, Cheese Street, and Reilly Craft Creamery.
The event promises to be different from anything UMS has presented before – but that’s part of its appeal.
“Over and over again, when we survey our audiences about what they’re looking for, and what they’re excited by, they consistently tell us they want new and unusual and innovative presentations. They want to engage with art in unique and unusual ways, and this checks all the boxes.”
So Jacobson believes that a sizable portion of UMS’ established audience base are willing to give “Falling Up” a chance; but he’s also excited that the show offers those normally beyond UMS’ – and jazz’s – typical reach with a fun point of entry.
“Jason Moran’s brilliant,” said Jacobson. “In addition to his playing, which is phenomenal, … he has such rich ideas and concepts. … For many of these kids who will be listening to his music on Sunday, many of them will have never listened to live jazz before in their lifetime. They’ll be exposed to this artform, this amazing American art form, that they otherwise wouldn’t be.”
“Falling Up” is a rain-or-shine event, though “the safety of the athletes is prioritized,” said Jacobson. “They can’t skate if the surface is wet, but if we find ourselves in that situation, we’d hope that the party could still go on in some way.”
The main hope, of course, is that the crowd will get to see skaters and music artists collaborating in exciting and unconventional ways.
“This whole notion of improvisation between musicians and athletes – they really feed off each other, with the musicians pushing the skaters to try different things, and the skaters prodding the musicians to jam harder. It’s very reciprocal, with a lot of give and take in terms of energy.”
Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.
Falling Up and Getting Down takes place at the Ann Arbor Skatepark, Sunday, September 11. Free, with advance registration required. Exhibition begins at 2:30 pm. For more information and to RSVP, visit http://www.UMS.org/skatepark.
While watching Theatre Nova’s lovely new production of Sarah Ruhl’s play, Dear Elizabeth, drawn from 30 years of correspondence between poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, the phrase “alone together” comes to mind often.
Why? Because although they both experience love off-stage – Bishop with a woman in Brazil named Lota, Lowell with three different wives – their true first love is words; and like a jealous, possessive lover, words, when you’re a professional writer, demand that you spend most of your waking life alone with them, and only them.
So it’s not surprising that Lowell and Bishop – who lived a similarly isolated artistic existence, and consequently understood each other deeply – flung letters to each other as if they were life preservers.
In life, Lowell and Bishop wrote more than 800 letters to each other, offering praise and feedback for each other’s work; celebrating each others’ awards and personal victories; and chronicling their travels, as well as their battles with inner demons (Bishop’s depression and alcoholism, Lowell’s bipolar disorder). Not surprisingly, even the prose of their casual letters rings gorgeously poetic; in reference to a lighted swimming pool, Bishop wrote, “it is wonderful to swim around in a sort of green fire. One’s friends look like luminous frogs.”
The inherent challenge of an epistolary play, of course, involves giving the audience something to watch, not simply listen to. Ruhl lays the foundation for a visually satisfying production by way of stage directions, calling for occasional projections, and giving the actors a template for connecting scenes through actions; they also “live” certain quirky moments as they speak the words of their letters instead of pretending to write them.
But director David Wolber gets much credit, too, for adding his own creative touches, effectively using props, different areas of the set, and a movement pattern for the actors – partly inspired by Lowell’s frustrated observation that the two poets seem connected by a wire, so that when one moves, the other does as well – that keeps the audience engaged.
Another tricky prospect, however, involves how to present the poets in their moments of weakness, such as when Bishop pulls two filled wine glasses from her desk to drink. It’s initially funny, but when she then pulls out a bottle of rubbing alcohol and downs that, too, we know we’ve suddenly gone down the rabbit hole of addiction. Wolber and actress Carrie Jay Sayer handle the shift with sensitivity, not playing it too heavily or too lightly, but rather suggesting a haunting, all-too-natural progression into darkness. (Wolber specializes in plays about artists and the process of creation, so play and director are ideally matched here.)
Joel Mitchell is marvelous and heartbreaking as Lowell, a man who struggles mightily in his own life, and uses that as material for his confessional poetry. Sayer, meanwhile, is well-cast as Bishop, conveying the emotionally guarded poet’s simultaneous desire to connect to Lowell while also always maintaining an arm’s length distance; and the actress nails a running gag wherein, after showering Lowell with praise over a poem or collection, she pauses and says something like, “There are just three words I take objection to,” or “I have two minor questions.”
Similarly, Lowell critiques his letter-writing in a postscript – “The last part is too heatedly written, with too many ‘ands’ and so forth” – thus providing a glimpse of the writer’s particular brand of neurosis. But this telling moment also suggests why he and Bishop never find happiness for long: they each can’t stop trying to edit their own lives.
Carla Milarch designed the show’s sound (including key exterior noises), as well as its costumes (Mitchell pulls different jackets and sweaters from a coat stand on stage). And Daniel C. Walker designed the show’s lighting and set, with adjacent workspaces for each poet, a ladder upstage center, and a large, short rock downstage right.
Indeed, in Dear Elizabeth, the rock marks the spot where Lowell and Bishop spent time together on a beach one day in Maine, early in their friendship. In a rush of feeling, Lowell nearly proposed to Bishop there, and he later confessed this to Bishop, writing, “asking you is the might have been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had.”
Though this is a beautiful, emotionally powerful admission to make, Dear Elizabeth makes you realize that in Bishop and Lowell’s case, Lowell’s failure to propose likely resulted in the pair having the most satisfying and durable kind of marriage they could ever hope to share with each other.
Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.
Dear Elizabeth runs through Sunday, September 25, at the Yellow Barn, 410 West Huron, Ann Arbor, MI, 48103. Call 734-635-8450 or visit Theatre Nova for tickets.
Of the many skilled authors and writers in our area, it’s unlikely many have traveled across the country not only to do research on their subject, but been so personally involved preserving a legacy they firmly believe in.
Robert E. Sweet is a musician who occasionally performs jazz with his trio at the Ann Arbor District Library. He is a drummer, an original member of the Sun Messengers, has worked with fellow drummer R.J. Spangler, and works his day job in the library of U.M.T.R.I. - the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute on North Campus.
Not so much a sidebar as a passion, Sweet has been pivotal archiving the artifacts of the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, N.Y. where he attended as a student in the mid-1970s. A school, think tank, and communal living situation in the Catskill Mountains some 90 miles north of New York City, C.M.S. was a proving ground for improvised music, the burgeoning world music movement, dance, poetry, meditation, healthy living and other forms of non-pop expressionism.
Founded by Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, and especially Karl Berger and his wife Ingrid, C.M.S. and the supporting Creative Music Foundation also established workshops, intensive sessions, and other educational satellite posts around the world.
Sweet has just published a second volume of the C.M.S. story All Kinds Of Time – The Enduring Spirit Of The Creative Music Studio (Arborville Publishing Inc.), a follow-up to Creative Music, Creative Mind – Revisiting The Creative Music Studio, based on oral history interviews, bringing the entire archives back to Ann Arbor, cataloging the items, preserving audio recordings, and turning them over to where they currently are housed at Columbia University.
More so, the book emphasizes that C.M.S. is still alive, updated and morphed into different forms, including internet courses, continuing live performances and workshops, and, above all, a mindset that there is more to music than reading notes on a page or improvising on random timbres and tones. It is a feeling shared by many thousands of musicians and listeners around the globe, including several individuals living in Ann Arbor such as Bob Sweet.
The book begins with the physical collapse of C.M.S. in 1984, its revival in recent years, and how the scope of the concept has expanded due to technology, not to mention the interest in artists who are still alive, those no longer alive such as the late Coleman, Cherry, Ed Blackwell, Collin Walcott, Nana Vasconcelos, and lesser knowns such as Turkish saxophonist Ismet Siral. Even drummer Levon Helm (The Band,) reggae legends Sly & Robbie, or John Medeski (Medeski, Martin & Wood) had a role at C.M.S. Larry Chernicoff is a musician who also contributed the cover photo design.
Of course there are those whose vast influence is felt among millions of musicians and listeners. There are big names who conducted workshops like Anthony Braxton and Jack DeJohnette, as well as pioneering trombonist and live electronics music maker George Lewis, There were two week intensives led by Cecil Taylor or the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Former students Marilyn Crispell and Tom Cora benefitted greatly as students, and one who was student turned instructor John Zorn. Much of this was covered in the previous book, but refreshed and revisited here.
These individuals founded the idea and ideals of world music, and not necessarily popular music from other countries. Instead, world music is folk music from other countries infused with American jazz, especially improvisation and blues feeling, making for a new music form that is unique unto itself.
What is most evident in reading All Kinds Of Time is the painstaking, infinite possibilities and details of the musical spirit infused in Karl Berger and Ingrid Sertso, and their insistence in keeping the history, tradition, and future of this music alive. Sweet knows the intimate ins and outs of how Berger and Sertso have prevailed through musical, financial and health barriers to insist their contribution is very alive and well.
There were an amazing array of artists involved in C.M.S. beyond big names like Coleman and Cherry. Bassists John Lindberg and Bill Laswell (both formerly from Metro-Detroit,) drummer Tani Tabbal from the legendary Detroit ensemble Griot Galaxy, Ann Arbor’s Ed Sarath and former Ann Arborite James Ilgenfritz (student of Lindberg) are all important exponents of C.M.S.
Sweet weaves through post-1984 with the story of how the Studio went dormant, and rose like a Phoenix on sheer willpower. The author went to Woodstock, N.Y., received and preserved recordings, materials and artifacts, catalogued them, made certain of their authenticity, and over a period of three decades, forwarded them to Columbia University where they now are housed.
The recorded musics, through no small amount of wrangling, have made it to the marketplace in the form of two triple CD sets for the Innova and Planet Arts labels respectively (the story about sessions originally being on Douglas Records is a good one), with more possibly on the way.
The first third of the book revisits the precepts of C.M.S. - basic practice, spirituality, discipline, and what creative music actually entails. It is a fascinating read in the discovery of how this music was conceived, realized, and collectively made without being produced like popular music. Yet there is a universal appeal to their sounds. It is in the main thoughtful, very tuneful, and enjoyable, rarely noisy or jarring, but in fact quite refined within the realm of spontaneous and thematic composition.
Sweet moves on to how C.M.S.’s broad minded ideals have always been valid and remain intact. There’s a major chapter on the Turkish connection via saxophonist Ismet Siral. With Turkey a centrally located Middle Eastern country subject to many influences from African, European to Asian, Karl Berger sees Turkish folk music as a basis for many other tangents to spring from.
The enduring and increasing importance of trumpeter, sage and spiritual counselor, pocket trumpeter/keyboardist/poet Don Cherry also has a chapter devoted to his insight. Born in Oklahoma City, living in the mean streets of Watts, L.A., forming a legendary group with Ornette Coleman, either drummer Billy Higgins or Ed Blackwell, tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman and bassist Charlie Haden, then emigrating to Sweden, Cherry's original post-bop influenced style changed, his personal sound driven by playing the melodica, and African instruments like various wood flutes, and especially the hunter’s guitar/doussin’gouni.
Then there’s the follow through of Columbia University via George Lewis, organizing and celebrating the recent fortieth anniversary of C.M.S., and providing hope that current students have access to the materials Sweet assured would be preserved. Concluding chapters add a great deal of information on the recruitment of current COO Rob Saffer.
Beyond the physical music and historical documents, Sweet tells a lot about how the Studio reinvented itself away from their Woodstock base, and also returned to upstate New York thanks to Karl Berger, Ingrid Sertso, their family members, and Saffer.
The book is an easy read, especially for those who are attuned to this music. All others will learn a lot. If critiques be made, the book re-repeats the self-implied importance in keeping the C.M.S. spirit alive. Also there is no index, and the Table of Contents is incorrectly numbered.
Otherwise, it gives notice to the notion that diversity in infinite ways and means is a good, powerful, and effective method for bringing peace to the world by showing us that we have many more similarities than differences. For the Creative Music Studio, there is indeed all kinds of time for their vision to continue and extend itself.
Michael G. Nastos is known as a veteran radio broadcaster, local music journalist, and event promoter/producer. He is a former music director and current super sub on 88.3 WCBN-FM Ann Arbor, founding member of SEMJA, the Southeastern Michigan Jazz Association, Board of Directors member of the Michigan Jazz Festival, votes in the annual Detroit Music Awards and Down Beat Magazine, NPR Music and El Intruso Critics Polls, and writes monthly for Hot House Magazine in New York City.
You needn’t pack a suitcase to attend the 2016 Kerrytown BookFest’s “Travels with Books” programs; you just need a sense of adventure and a passion for the written word.
Yes, the 14th annual BookFest, happening Sunday, September 11 from 10:30 am to 5 pm at the Ann Arbor Farmers’ Market and Kerrytown Concert House, is a free celebration of authors, books, bookmaking and more, with events and activities for kids, too.
The day kicks off with coffee and doughnuts, as well a short presentation of the 9th annual Community Book Award; this year’s recipient is Washtenaw Literacy, which provides literacy support, free of charge, to adults by way of trained tutors.
“That was a pretty easy decision,” said KBF president and Aunt Agatha’s Book Shop co-owner Robin Agnew. “There was unanimous agreement. It’s a great organization, and they’re now celebrating their 40th year of doing great things in our community.”
In keeping with the “Travels with Books” theme, “Under the Radar Michigan”’s Tom Daldin will talk at 11 am about the some of the state’s best-kept secrets, which he regularly explores on his PBS series.
But you might wonder: does each BookFest’s theme come first as an organizing principle, or does the BookFest team connect the dots as guest speakers are lined up for the following year?
“Kind of both,” said Agnew. “It’s pretty organic. … It has to be general, or it’s too hard to program things around it. But last year, Daldin was one of the first people we booked, so we chose ‘Travels with Books’ and thought it sounded like a fun theme.”
This year’s KBF writer-in-residence is Huron High teacher and author R.J. Fox (Love & Vodka), who will be critiquing attendee-submitted manuscripts. All the slots for this program are already full, but there’s still a book fair, author signings, and some enticing panel discussions to check out.
“I always have some spidey sense about what people are most excited about, and this year, I think [mystery writer William Kent Krueger will be a big draw, because he’s got a new book out,” Agnew said, referring to Krueger’s Manitou Canyon. “But I also think the identity quest panel will be pretty popular. It’s an interesting group.”
The panel, titled “The Quest for Identity,” features Desiree Cooper (Know the Mother), Kelly Fordon (Garden of the Blind), and Andrew Mozina (Contrary Motion) talking about their work with moderator Donald Lystra (Something That Feels Like Truth).
Other events include a thriller writer (Brian Freeman) sharing photos from a domestic “photo safari” that informs how he uses settings in his fiction; a “Travel the Lakes” featuring writers Loreen Niewenhuis and Maureen Dunphy discussing their Great Lakes adventures; Eating Wildly author Ava Chin, who will speak about urban foraging (and Food Gatherers will be accepting donations on-site); and a pragmatic talk called “Writing for Hire,” during which three writers will talk about the myriad ways they support themselves through writing.
“That panel is going to be so good,” said Agnew, noting that the panelists wrote under multiple names and did projects as various as Goosebumps installments, sci-fi and mystery books-for-hire, and flashcards.
But one talk that Agnew herself is most excited about it “Travel through Time,” featuring novelist B. A. Shapiro (The Art Forger and The Muralist).
“I’m really interested in art history, and we’ll be having an art historian interview (Shapiro), so it should be a really interesting conversation,” said Agnew.
The children’s tent will host a Mother Goose program, author readings, storytellers, a craft, and a drawing workshop.
Regular KBF attendees may notice one new addition this year. “It’s not a big thing, but people will see ‘The Book I Love’ signs, with slips to fill out. Every bookstore will have a box or a table devoted to it, and we’ll probably share some of the responses on social media or the website. We may even have a panel about it next year.”
So bookmark your latest read for a while and head to Kerrytown on September 11th!
Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.