Artistic Pedagogy: "Dancing Globally" at the University of Michigan

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Madeline Joss and Nicolas Hopkin dance in Ohad Naharin's Mabul at University of Michigan's Dancing Globally

U-M students Madeline Joss and Nicolas Hopkin dance in Ohad Naharin's Mabul.

You’re setting the energy level pretty high when you blast a Dick Dale surf-guitar version of “Hava Nagila” before the lights even go down. My expectations were high, too, for the first night of University of Michigan Department of Dance’s four-day Dancing Globally event (Feb. 1-4).

"Giselle" is a demanding work for any dancer, but Ballet Chelsea’s students are thriving in it

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Giselle

Lauren Yordanich is one of Ballet Chelsea's young dancers tasked with tackling the difficult Giselle. Photo by Monique Coffman.

Because of the weight of its subject matter and the demands of its production, Giselle is seldom tackled in student performance. Yet, here is Ballet Chelsea, a relatively new pre-professional company, mounting a full-length Giselle on March 11 and 12 at the CHS Performing Arts Complex.

Giselle is serious business -- and I mean that in a couple of ways.

First, there’s the matter of its plot. Giselle, a young peasant girl, falls in love with Albrecht, whom she meets when his hunting party passes near her village. He promises to marry her, but before Act I is over she has learned the extent of his deception: he is not just some hunter, he is a duke, and furthermore, he is already betrothed to Bathilde. Giselle goes mad and dies of a broken heart -- both literal and figurative (the idea that she has a weak heart and should not dance so much was planted early in the act).

In Act II, Giselle has become a Wili, the spirit of a young woman jilted at the altar. She is not alone; there’s a whole gang of Wilis and they are out for revenge on the men who betrayed them. Their queen orders Giselle to dance with Albrecht until he dies of exhaustion. Instead, Giselle stays with him until the dawn, when Wilis lose their power, thus saving his life. She returns to the grave and he, presumably, to a life of guilt and remorse.

So the story is a far cry from the fluffy stuff of, say, The Nutcracker. Furthermore, it is a formidable production to tackle.

Bicentennial Smorgasbord: U-M Department of Dance's "Glancing Back, Dancing Forward"

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Catching the University of Michigan’s bicentennial spirit, the Department of Dance’s student concert, Glancing Back, Dancing Forward (at the Power Center through Sunday), celebrates the Department’s own history and breadth.

A lobby installation -- designed by Stephanie Brown, Elizabeth Benedict, and Jessica Fogel -- chronicles the early days of dance at the U. There are pleasingly nostalgic photos of clogging and “aesthetic dances” in gossamer dresses out on the lawn, and excerpts from an early phys ed manual featuring line drawings and directions for calisthenics. Come the 1930s and '40s, we see the shift to “modern dance” in photos of earnest young women in Martha Graham-influenced dark jersey skirts.

Before the performance in the theater begins, the lobby is filled with dancers bringing these images to life. Choreographed by Department Chair Fogel and local tapper Susan Filipiak, this pre-show presents its examples of early-20th-century dance in overlapping layers. This results in sometimes odd but historically accurate juxtapositions, such as smiling, overalled tappers beside a stern woman in a high-necked ruffled blouse with a whistle.

Might As Well Jump, Jump, Jump: Igor and Moreno's "Idiot-Syncrasy"

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Igor

Igor and Moreno jump around, jump around, jump up, jump up and get down.

thmpf thmpf thmpf thmpf thmpf thmpf thmpf thmpf thmpf

You know what that sound is? It’s jumping. Not just a jump, but jumping -- ongoing.

Maybe you have a muscle memory of trampolines, or a visual memory of kids’ games, or an ancestral memory of the bouncing that shows up in so many folk dances, but you know jumping. And Igor Urzelai and Moreno Solinas -- the London-based dance duo known as Igor and Moreno -- are counting on that, counting on our shared understanding of sustained thmpf thmpf thmpf for the success of their show Idiot-Syncrasy, which has its U.S. premiere at the Arthur Miller Theater this weekend, sponsored by http://ums.org/performance/idiot-syncrasy/University.

Igor and Moreno bounce throughout the show, with their jumping being a simple strategy to bring the group -- them and us, the audience -- together. We all tap into the shared pulse; we feel it together, in synchrony. The jumping, like a pulse, becomes a bass line for other, more nuanced activities Urzelai and Solinas carry out. And when that jumping keeps going and going, we understand that, too. We know about endurance and about exhaustion, so we’re right with them when what had been something playful becomes something more serious and powerful when it “spirals to a darker place.”

The streamlined nature of Idiot-Syncrasy’s central premise -- just two bodies, singing and dancing and jumping -- came originally from an economic crisis in 2013 when they made the work. There was a desire, and a financial imperative, to do “more with less,” to strip down to very simple means. “You really only need a little for something quite big to happen,” Solinas said.

Spontaneity on Cue: Batsheva Dance Company

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Batsheva

It's the Last dance but the first chance for North American audiences to see it.

People are going gaga for Batsheva Dance Company -- in part because of its complex and compelling system of movement called "Gaga."

Based in Tel Aviv, Batsheva is considered among the foremost contemporary dance companies on the planet, its reputation resting on both artistic director Ohad Naharin, whose innovative dances have earned him international recognition, and the dancers -- strikingly beautiful, preternaturally facile people capable of movement that can be breathtaking, quicksilver, poignant, contorted, edgy, quizzical, bombastic, and much more. They have a totally engaging hyper-presence.

The University Musical Society-sponsored Batsheva performances at the Power Center on January 7 and 8 are the North American premieres of Naharin’s 2015 provocatively titled Last Work and kicks off a six-week tour that will take the company to major cities in U.S. and Canada. The tour is also the first chance U.S. audiences will have to see Batsheva live since 2014.

Talking with Luc Jacobs, a former Batsheva dancer who now serves as Naharin’s rehearsal director, afforded me the chance to get an insider’s perspective on Batsheva, Naharin, and Last Work. Fittingly, our conversation began and ended with "Gaga," Naharin’s invented movement language that allows him to communicate more directly with the dancers.

Review: Academy of Russian Classical Ballet’s "The Nutcracker" at the Michigan Theater

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Academy

How do you know winter is coming? Nutcracker productions pop up like wildlings.

This time of year some people need to hang lights, some people need to watch It’s a Wonderful Life and How the Grinch Stole Christmas? and some people need to attend a performance of The Nutcracker.

The ballet scratches a certain holiday itch with its familiar Tchaikovsky score and story of a Clara, a young girl who receives a nutcracker doll at her family’s Christmas party and, after a bit of magic, helps her now-human nutcracker prince defeat an army of giant mice. They celebrate by traveling through a snowstorm to the Kingdom of the Sweets where they are entertained by politically incorrect dances from faraway lands. All right, the plot isn’t its strong point, but a good Nutcracker hooks a certain segment of the population with its holiday appeal and lovely dancing.

As a member of that somewhat rarefied demographic, I went away satisfied from The Academy of Russian Classical Ballet’s production at the Michigan Theater on Saturday, December 10. I’m betting that the families there -- with children all dressed up and out past bedtime in a grand downtown theater -- also felt the itch scratched. It hit all the right notes with its convivial party scene and high-spirited dancing.

Review: UMS presents 'Dorrance Dance' at the Power Center

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Dorrance

Flying feet and complicated rhythms.

If you’re going to see Dorrance Dance, and you should (there’s one more show, tonight at the Power Center), go with your eyes peeled, your ears pricked, and your antennae waving. Sit up, pay attention -- you’re going to space out. With the first piece on the program, excerpts from SOUNDspace, you will have to take in the fact that all the music -- all the different tones and volumes and counterpoint rhythms -- you hear is generated by dancers’ feet. Don’t stop watching, though, because the scene before you will shift pretty swiftly.

Michelle Dorrance, the MacArthur Genius (2015) choreographer who masterminds the show, gives you a quick primer, an introduction to her multi-sensory world. Early on, you see four dancers lit from the waist down, compelling your focus to the lower body. Those legs and feet enunciate slowly at first -- see how a different touch by a different part of the foot results in a different sound, and see how those sounds combine. Oh, and don’t fail to notice the catchy angular patterns that the eight legs make, rotating in and out to create a kaleidoscope of bending knees and flexing ankles. Got it? Great, because Dorrance is moving on, expanding the vocabulary. She and Elizabeth Burke, with upper bodies still in semi-darkness, are trading steps, and although the angles are still there, more complicated rhythms are flying. This is a good time to mention that every single dancer you see is a hotshot; Dorrance repeatedly pulls off a move that I can’t even compute -- what the hell are her feet doing?

And that’s it; your education in this medium is over and all you can do is go along for the ride. All the lights are up, and Dorrance does a solo that both slides and taps. Dancers come and go in pairs and quartets, eventually circling around Warren Craft. As he tips, twists, and topples, the others accompany him with a snuffly, sandy sound, perforated by silence and snaps. By now you are fluent, comfortable in this world. Good, because it’s about to change: four dancers appear on wood platforms that have a furrow-patterned metal panel along one side, like a washboard. The possibilities for feet-generated sound have just multiplied, and it’s fun to watch and listen to the dancers play this new surface with their heels. Enjoy the super-satisfying simplicity of each dancer -- quickly, one after another -- dragging a foot along the washboard and as the foot releases, spinning: kkkshrwih spin, kkkshrwih spin, down the line.

Dorrance

One of the platforms by Nicholas Van Young.

Here you might become aware that you are watching only an excerpt of the full-length SOUNDspace. Just as the dancers begin, STOMP-like, to play with the potential that different objects have for making sound -- still on the washboard platforms, they suddenly have metal chains that, when lowered or dropped, add a distinct sound to the percussive mix -- the dance is over.

It’s okay. Stretch your legs and reset your head, because as lush and variegated as the sensory world of SOUNDspace was, it seems practically flat in comparison to the explosion that is Act II, ETM: Double Down (again, excerpted here from a longer work). Whereas in SOUNDspace you have only (“only”!) the music generated by feet talking to the floor, in ETM, the floor finds its voice. On wired platforms designed by Nicholas Van Young, every step not only makes the expected tap sound but also triggers an electronic tone. Now there are musicians on stage too -- Donovan Dorrance, Aaron Marcellus, and Gregory Richardson -- their live performance instantaneously recorded and played back so that they can accompany themselves. Richardson plucks a simple theme on his stand-up bass, then impishly stands by as the theme continues without him touching his instrument. He layers on bowed tracks, then switches to electric guitar. Vocalist Marcellus lets loose with a stream of golden tones, these likewise immediately re-played and altered by a device he holds in his hand.

You get the idea: the sonic landscape has exploded. In the same way, the movement goes far beyond its Act I parameters. SOUNDspace’s movement vocabulary -- with the exception of Craft’s rubbery, off-kilter solo -- stayed largely in the realm of familiar tap-dancing. Dancers were upright with their torsos inclined a bit forward, arms mostly a functional, swinging counterbalance to the complicated activity below. In ETM, upper bodies become more eloquent, and the more pedestrian, vertical stance cedes some of its default status. This isn’t always successful, as when Dorrance stands slumped and alone; she seems contrived or affected, like a caricature of despondency. More often, though, the expanded physicality delights. Dorrance shares a duet with Craft in which they lean into each other, barely holding each other up as their feet get away from them on some runaway train.

Matthew “Mega Watts” West shows up, and at first he seems gratuitous -- why is this man in sneakers rather than tap shoes executing showy hip hop and b-boy moves? Sure, these forms share a common Africanist lineage with tap, but you might think he looks out of place. You’ll get over it; he is the harbinger of a broader and richer movement palette.

Dorrance

Dorrance Dancers wired up at the Power Center.

There is a nearly perfect duet for Byron Tittle and Leonardo Sandoval, poignant in an unexpected 3/4 time. One leans, the other holds him up, slides him across the floor. They are in sync, and then just a little out, like windshield wipers gone awry. Sandoval stands and watches Tittle dance, but when Sandoval dances, Tittle faces away -- it’s so apparent, though, that he’s listening intently to Sandoval. Somehow, it’s a heart-breaker. You’ll see.

Dorrance, on a raised wired platform, starts a duet with West who is below, on the stage itself. She recedes into the role of accompanist, generating a simple rhythm of sounds that remind me of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s celesta, as West pours and snakes his way onto his shoulder, his hands, back on his feet. West starts messing with an intriguing-looking wooden control panel near the front of the stage. Its wires and knobs allow him to control amplified electronic sounds; he turns on this one and then that one, like a kid with a Casio keyboard. Dorrance joins him, and you won’t know it just then, but you are poised on the edge of something.

What follows is a full-on eruption, sound and bodies hurtling in all directions. Dancers cross the stage, playing percussion instruments as they go. All the musicians are whaling on their instruments, the electric guitar is rocking out, limbs are flailing, taps are hitting the floor with furious frequency. The stage is fevered, the energy is at maximum intensity and there’s nowhere to go but oh yes, there is: Watts bursts into the center pulling out all the power moves, his legs flaring as he spins on his hands. Is this the climax? Or is this it, a minute later, when, impossibly, there is even more movement, more sound? I think there might even be smoke….

The only response possible at this point is to participate in the onstage bedlam: stand up with all the people around you, and clap and clap.


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.


Dorrance Dance continues through Friday, October 21 at the Power Center, 121 Fletcher St., Ann Arbor. For more information and tickets, visit: http://ums.org/performance/dorrance-dance/.

Review: UMS presents 'Layla and Majnun,' Mark Morris Dance Group & The Silk Road Ensemble

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Layla

UMS presents Layla and Majnun at the Power Center. / Photo by Susana Miller.

Choreographer Mark Morris notes that the ancient story of Layla and Majnun presented by UMS at the Power Center this weekend -- a Persian romance retold across the Mid-East since the 12th-century -- is one of profound, abundant, eternal love, and that a full staging of it has the potential to make it more accessible to a larger audience. Given the western penchant for a good tragic love story -- think Romeo and Juliet -- this tale of young lovers so desperate for each other that the man is driven mad certainly has potential cultural traction here. With his production of Layla and Majnun, Morris succeeds in bringing this story to life for audiences who may be unfamiliar with it and in so doing adds his distinct mark to a tale that has already had many hands on it.

Consider all the permutations of this ancient tale that are present in Morris’s production. Its musical source is a 1908 Azerbaijani opera, Leyli and Majnun, that in turn is based on a 16th-century poetic setting of the ancient story. The opera was the first instance of western symphonic music combined with mugham¸ a traditional Azerbaijani improvisational form performed by vocalists accompanied by frame drums, lute, and spike fiddle. Although the opera is beloved in Azerbaijan, it has been reconceived for this production. Renowned mugham singer Alim Quasimov, in collaboration with the Silk Road Ensemble, has compressed the three-and-a-half-hour opera into a more easily digestible seventy minutes, distilled around Majnun’s solos and his duets with Layla. Furthermore, elements that were kept separate in the original opera - mugham and western instruments, improvisation and written parts - are here integrated. To this story many times retold and this music many times re-imagined, Morris adds his dancing.

The musicians - Qasimov and his daughter, Fargana Qasimova, with the Silk Road Ensemble - fill the center of the stage while the dancers weave around and between them. The story unfolds in five acts: Love and Separation, The Parents’ Disapproval, Sorrow and Despair, Layla’s Unwanted Wedding, and The Lover’s Demise.

The tone of the verses, present as a libretto in the printed program, is sustained, seldom varying even as the story progresses from act to act. The lovers continuously profess their agonized passion, but Morris’s choreography refracts this one-noted desperation. In Act I, Layla and Majnun glow with smiles. They rebound from broad and deep pliés and extend glorious legs, testing their connection with one another from different angles and at different distances across the stage. They play a little game, encircling each other with their arms. This merry interaction directly contrasts the verses of Act I - “My heart is heavy because I am alone…I feel like a nightingale that cries in pain…” In so doing, it creates a satisfying starting place; theatrically, the story has somewhere to go.

The dancing also adds breadth to the characters. The full cast of twelve is almost always on stage, but different dancers take on the roles of Layla and Majnun in each of the first four acts. The different aspects of these characters that emerge over time and through circumstance are made evident by the different humans who embody them. Stacy Martorana’s Layla of Act I is exuberant and expansive, whereas Nicole Sabella’s Act II Layla becomes more restrained.
With the work of story-telling done by the printed libretto (and largely superfluous projected supertitles), Morris’s choreography only occasionally employs mime-like “literal” movement: Layla’s unwanted husband shakes his fist at Majnun, or Layla reaches longingly toward her lover. More often, the dancing relies on a more visceral meaning-making: as Majnun goes mad, he pitches backward with knees bent deep and arms spread wide. When her parents disapprove, Layla curtsies low and slow, her fingers and wrists tracing sinuous curlicues, but then finds herself standing high on a step, pushing the air away from her. As Layla’s Unwanted Wedding unfolds, the stage is flanked by rows of unison dancers whose pert and precise footwork and shifting facings manage to evoke both a folk dance and the inevitability of tradition and ceremony.

Sometimes, as with that wedding scene, the ensemble of dancers is a community. They herd the lovers away from each other, or watch and seem to whisper about them. Sometimes they play the role of a Greek chorus, commenting on or translating the actions of the central characters. In Sorrow and Despair, they stand linked together, heads whipping and rolling from side to side, on and on, creating a frenzy of obsession. Sometimes they are all Laylas and all Majnuns, reflecting the actions of the “real” Layla and Majnun.

The resolution of Layla and Majnun’s desperate affair is, of course, death. In the final act, all four Laylas and all four Majnuns are present, but their respective demises seem asymmetric. My impression is of all the Laylas descending together to sit with bowed heads, but each Majnun has a brief solo before surrendering to the floor. (After all, the story tells that it’s Majnun who officially goes crazy; Layla just expires.) A clarinet solo draws all the dancers up to their feet, and each pair of Layla and Majnun meets briefly before exiting. I want to think they have been united in death, or that their earthly love has been subsumed in a divine one, but the final image is of a pair of female dancers returning to extinguish two of the lanterns that have been burning throughout the performance.

If there’s a shortcoming in the production, it lies with an uneven distribution of restraint. In comparison to the wildness, the near-hysteria, of the singers’ improvised solos, the choreography sometimes seems safe, tame, comparatively unimpassioned. Perhaps it’s a function of spatial confinement; the Silk Road musicians and mugham singers take up a good chunk of the stage and the dancers have only limited paths available. Or maybe it’s the nature of the rehearsed versus the spontaneous; when each of the Majnuns performed his last, brief solo, I glimpsed an unleashing that paralleled that of the singers’ and I suspect it’s because those solos are largely improvisatory. Mine is a small complaint, though; this Layla and Majnun is a worthy installment in the story’s evolving history as a performance work. Its reconceived music and eloquent dancing serve the famous story and render it quite legible to a non-Azerbaijani audience.


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.


Layla and Majnun continues through Saturday, October 15 at the Power Center, 121 Fletcher St., Ann Arbor. For more information and tickets, visit: http://ums.org/performance/layla-and-majnun/.

Review: Falling Up and Getting Down, UMS Season-Opening Live Skateboarding + Music Celebration

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Pro

Pro skateboarder Jordyn Barratt and UMS President Ken Fischer / Photo by Katie Alexis Photography

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.

Skatepark

Skater (left) / Photo by Kimberley Mortson // Pro Andy Macdonald with local skater Stan Baker.

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.