"River in Our City, the River in Our Veins" celebrates the Huron


The River in Our City, the River in Our Veins

U-M's Christianne Myers said River in Our City... is "a combination of performance and museum" -- with music and puppets.

The 130 miles of the Huron River have inspired everyone from poets and writers to biological researchers and naturalists. Now, it’s serving as inspiration for The River in Our City, the River in Our Veins, a processional performance at 12 noon on Friday, Oct. 27, in celebration of the University of Michigan’s bicentennial.

“Part of it was wanting to find something that impacts everybody on campus,” said Christianne Myers, associate professor of theater (costume design) and head of design and production at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre, and Dance. She’s also one of the event’s organizers. “Whether it’s actually something people are studying or doing research on, or if its just students riding inner tubes. It can be a lot of things to a lot of different people."

The event will begin near the pond by the Earl V. Moore Building where guests will be greeted by a sound installation and environment pre-show. Then there’s a giant 50-foot long river that will emerge out of the pond and serve as leader for those following the processional. During this first stop there will also be a 12-foot heron puppet (an element they knew they wanted from the start because of an infamous heron who hangs out by the Moore building) and a giant dragonfly puppet. The first part of the processional, or chapter one as Myers called it, will also play electronic music composed by Michael Gurevich’s class. Gurevich is an associate professor and chair of performing arts technology at SMTD and was Myers' biggest collaborator.

Chapter two of the performance will happen near Circle Drive, where there will be a lily pad suite consisting of four-foot diameter lily pads that blossom and a surprise will pop out.

“It’s beautiful and delightful and just fun,” Myers said. “That was one of the best collaborations that came out of our classes, I think. They were just on the same page, it was great.”

The River in Our City, the River in Our Veins

Group project: River in Our City... brought together U-M's School of Music, Theatre, and Dance, the Stamps School of Art and Design, and the School for Environment and Sustainability.

There will also be another piece from the electronic music class played at Circle Drive, and another musical element will be a singing call-and-response, which was created by SMTD professor Evan Chambers and his freshman composition class.

The last element of the performance will be the tree planting ceremony, where a few words will be said -- and then there’s a dance party.

“Its kind of a combination of performance and museum,” said Myers about the processional. “Just like you would wander through a museum and stop and look at something, there’s going to be that as well. And just like in a contemporary museum it might involve performance. It’s not just like flat work; you’re engaged with it.”

So, how exactly did all this come together?

“It’s sprawling, so there’s no quick answer,” Myers laughed.

About a year-and-a-half ago -- after Myers had produced a giant shadow puppets show which impressed one of the bicentennial organizers -- the university started to discuss plans for the big anniversary. A tree-planting ceremony was planned, but not much else. While bouncing around ideas Myers came across the MCubed Program, which would help with the funding for her project.

Myers said the program, which is sponsored by the provost’s office, is a collaborative funding opportunity and the only criterion was that you had to partner with two other people in two other units.

“I sort of put a bunch of feelers out,” Myers said. “What was amazing about the MCubed Program is on the website you had kernels of ideas (from others). ... It was kind of like a dating service; you could see what might be a good fit.”

Myers ended up partnering with the Stamps School of Art and Design and the School for Environment and Sustainability. The project started by assigning students in the Stamps School to create custom-made fabrics inspired by the Huron River. They wanted to see what would happen if everyone was given the same prompt, which Myers said was basically, “Your inspiration is the Huron River, go!”

Myers said they ended up with two dozen different fabrics to work with that range from very abstract to more literal. Those fabrics were then used on pieces like the river puppet.

“It's like one of those drawing classes when you’re a kid where you draw a shape and then pass the piece of paper to the next person, who adds to it. ... Even though you don’t know what the end result is going to be, it can be amazing, and that’s kind of what this has been like,” Myers said.

After mashing up their classes, Myers and Gurevich gave their students very few parameters, much like the fiber students. They were told there was going to be processional and that it needed to feature a river. What they did with those instructions was really up to them and led to pieces like the heron and the lily pads.

“The thing I loved about this experience is that as a teacher, and as a theater artist, I love watching students be trusted with creativity and having them come through,” she said. “They all kind of stepped up and it was kind of great.”

The precessional performance isn’t the only piece of the event though. On Oct. 21, a small group went to the family center at Mott Children's Hospital and performed a short concert. There were two choral songs, original music by masters’ students that was inspired by the Huron River, frog puppets, and a crafting project. Another element to The River in Our City, the River in Our Veins will be what they do with the pieces once it's done.

Myers said they plan to upcycle the river’s fabrics and turn them into scarves. Three of the pieces have backpack frames, which they will use for other things or donate to the prop shop. All of the wood from pieces will be recycled and the frog puppets will be used elsewhere -- one will even make a cameo in a main stage show in the spring.

“Part of me is like, if we’re going to talk about pollution and sustainability we can’t just chuck all this stuff in the garbage ... that would be the opposite of what we need to be doing,” Myers laughed.

Reusing so many elements of the processional is one of the many gratifying aspects of the performance. But her favorite part would have to be the collaboration between all the departments.

“People get isolated by our specialties and that makes for really strong research, and there is a reason why that is like that, but I get very excited when we sort of reach past the silos and see what we can do.

“Plus, it’s going to be pretty and fun,” Myers said. “Just keep your fingers crossed it doesn’t rain.”

Dana Casadei is a freelance reporter covering arts and entertainment in Michigan.

"The River in Our City, the River in Our Veins" happens Friday, Oct. 27 at 12 noon. Free. The processional begins near the pond by the Earl V. Moore Building, 1100 Baits Dr., Ann Arbor, and leads to the Duderstadt tree planting ceremony at 12:45 pm. For more information about the event, click here.